Staff and inmates at a Hilo jail that has been jolted by a major COVID outbreak have described harrowing conditions inside the facility, including cramped conditions that reek of human waste and a complete breakdown of safety protocols in statements taken as part of an ongoing class action lawsuit filed against the state and Hawaii Department of Public Safety alleging a gross failure to protect inmates from the coronavirus.
The current outbreak at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center has infected more than 200 inmates and 19 guards, two of whom remain hospitalized. The jail, which for years has been severely overcrowded, held 344 inmates earlier this month in a space that was designed for just 206.
“These conditions were pre-COVID and just didn’t change,” said Gina Szeto-Wong, an attorney for the inmates. “So post-COVID it just became a petri dish for the spread of COVID.”
In 2016, the Legislature appropriated $15 million to expand the Hilo jail. The project was slated to be finished this year, but with delays is now projected to be completed in 2024. Neither Public Safety officials or Gov. David Ige responded to questions about why the expansion wasn’t fast-tracked amid the state’s emergency orders in light of the health and safety risks posed by the pandemic.
A spokeswoman for Ige said he was too busy to respond to questions on Monday.
The governor and Public Safety officials declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, noting that the Attorney General’s office would be filing a response with the court.
Prior to the COVID outbreak at the Hilo jail, Public Safety officials routinely housed 40 to 60 pre-trial inmates in a 30-foot by 30-foot room referred to as the Fishbowl, while as many as seven detainees have been kept in chain-linked “dog cages” in the intake area, according to signed declarations from staff and inmates at the facility.
New admissions are kept in the cages during processing, as well as detainees who are suicidal, have mental health issues or are disruptive, according to the declaration of Lisa Jobes, a case manager at the Hilo jail who has worked for the Public Safety Department for two decades.
There is no bathroom or running water in the Fishbowl, so all the inmates must use a nearby bathroom with one urinal, a sink and a toilet that overflows daily, contributing to the stench of human waste that permeates the air around the room, according to staff.
“The inside of the Fishbowl smells like hot, stale urine or the smell of a person who has not showered in a long time,” according to a declaration from Erin Loredo, who works at the jail as an inmate grievance specialist for the Department of Public Safety. Loredo said she had seen male inmates holding cups of urine inside the cramped room. Loredo, who said her desk was covered in rat feces when she started working at the facility in 2018, said female inmates relegated to what is supposed to be a visitors’ room are enduring similar circumstances.
“I have heard DPS staff say to one another, ‘If we got an outbreak in here, we’re screwed,’” according to her signed declaration.
In late May, after two inmates in the Fishbowl tested positive for the virus, staff say all, or nearly all, detainees in the room also tested positive. Jobes said that all of the inmates continued to sleep on thin mats, spaced just inches away from each other, after testing positive.
Dustin Snedeker-Abadilla, an inmate at the jail who says he is among the inmates who tested positive for COVID while detained in the Fishbowl, said that the room is so cramped it can be hard to walk around.
“In the Fishbowl, I hear people coughing, having trouble breathing, and experiencing chest pains,” he said in a statement. “I hear detainees in the Fishbowl ask for medical assistance because of their COVID symptoms, but assistance rarely comes.”
Staff say inmates in the Fishbowl have been allowed to use the bathroom just two to three times a day and that a jug of water is sometimes placed in the room for inmates.
Five staff at the jail who provided signed declarations all said that COVID safety protocols were often nonexistent. They said inmates weren’t screened for COVID upon entrance, social distancing was impossible due to the overcrowding, vulnerable inmates with health conditions weren’t being identified and sanitation and personal protective equipment was sorely lacking.
Attorneys for the inmates are asking the court to appoint a special master to implement a COVID response plan that is consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, evaluate whether more inmates need to be released and devise comprehensive plans to promote vaccinations among inmates and staff.
“DPS’s failure to protect those in its custody is not only unconstitutional, is is inexcusable,” according the request.
Throughout the pandemic there have been major COVID outbreaks in many of the state’s jails and prisons which have infected more than 2,211 inmates, including 657 Hawaii inmates housed at Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona. At least seven inmates have died.
The lawsuit warns that if action isn’t taken there will continue to be outbreaks at the facilities.