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Virus outbreaks in Hawaii jails prompt inmate lawsuit

A class-action lawsuit on behalf of Hawaii inmates says the state has failed to protect people from COVID-19 outbreaks in unsanitary jails.

Nearly half of the people in Hawaii custody have contracted the virus, and five out of nine facilities have experienced “uncontrolled outbreaks,” resulting in at least nine deaths, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit describes conditions including inmates with no symptoms or negative test results being in the same cell as those who have tested positive or who have symptoms, cells that aren’t sanitized or cleaned when virus-positive inmates move out and a new person moves in, and prisoners pressed up against each other while lining up for meals.

The Department of Public Safety has been advised not to comment on pending legal matters, and the state attorney general’s office will file a response in court, said Toni Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the department, which operates and manages eight jails and prisons in Hawaii. About 1,000 inmates convicted in Hawaii are at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona.

Although some residents and staff members have been vaccinated, the disease can still spread, the lawsuit said, adding that state officials “must have an effective plan to educate and encourage the individuals in its custody, as well as its staff, to accept vaccination.”

Because residents are coming and going for court hearings, an outbreak can easily spread to the surrounding community, the lawsuit said.

Attorney Eric Seitz, who is representing the inmates, said he will ask a judge to appoint someone to ensure that correctional facilities are complying with public health guidelines.

He prepared a motion to file in the case, but the lawsuit was transferred to the federal court system on Tuesday, at the request of the state, Seitz said.

The motion notes that nearly half of the inmate population at the Big Island correctional center tested positive within a span of two weeks in May and June and further describes conditions, including ailing detainees within “six feet from a bathroom which is routinely flooded with human urine and feces,” and inmates sleeping on mats mere inches apart.

“Their requests to use the bathroom are frequently denied, forcing detainees to urinate in their drinking cups,” the motion said.

A failure to provide regular bathroom access led to a disturbance at the jail on Friday, the motion said. The disturbance was “quickly contained” with no major injuries after a lockdown in one housing module, the public safety department said in a news release, which said the cause of the unrest is under investigation.

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