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Hawaii News | Kokua Line

Kokua Line: When will Hawaii restore family visits at jails and prisons?

Question: In-person visitation has been suspended at Oahu Community Correctional Center during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has not been reinstated. Has the state decided when or how in- person visitation will resume at OCCC or at Halawa prison? Will visitors need to be vaccinated?

Answer: No, the state Department of Public Safety has not decided when and how to restore in-person family visitation at Hawaii’s jails and prisons, which has been suspended since March 2020, said Toni Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the department.

Inmates can make an unlimited number of pre-paid and collect personal phone calls and are encouraged to stay in touch with their families that way, she said. However, phone calls are no substitute for in-person visits, according to community justice advocate Kat Brady.

“The research is very clear on this. Visitation is a crucial lifeline that connects somebody living in an institution with people living in the community. Especially with families, and especially because so many people inside have children,” said Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons. “They don’t even have Zoom. A year and a half into this and they don’t even have Zoom. Even Zoom would be an improvement. We have video visits for inmates held in Arizona (which predates the pandemic) but not in Hawaii.”

Schwartz said the department “is looking at the addition of secure video visitation options” for inmates in Hawaii. No final decision has been made.

She emphasized that social, in-person visitation was suspended to deter the spread of COVID-19 within Hawaii’s jails and prisons and that the restrictions were in line with the department’s Pandemic Response Plan, which was updated May 28. The plan does not indicate when in-person visitation will be restored.

PSD “is monitoring the current increased community spread of COVID-19 and assessing when and how to safely reinstitute in-person social visits. There is real concern about new virus introduction, through in-person visitation, triggering new outbreaks in the facilities,” Schwartz said in an email.

You can read the Pandemic Response Plan on the department’s website, at dps.hawaii.gov/.

A federal judge ruled earlier this month that the department had failed to follow its own plan and failed to protect inmates during the pandemic, seven of whom have died in Hawaii. The lawsuit focused on overcrowding and dangerous conditions and practices within Hawaii’s prisons and jails, not on visitation policies.

Hawaii has more than 4,000 men and women incarcerated in the state or in Arizona.

A different reader asked a related question:

Q: My husband is detained at Oahu Community Correctional Center. He hasn’t been convicted of anything. He is vaccinated. I am vaccinated. Yet I am not allowed to visit him. Can’t they make exceptions for inmates who are vaccinated with visitors who are vaccinated?

A: Not at this time; all in-person social visitation is suspended, Schwartz said.

In your message, you expressed frustration that harsh but supposedly temporary measures — such as suspending family visits — that were accepted as necessary at the beginning of a mysterious pandemic seem to be becoming permanent as the pandemic drags on, even though more is known about how to deter the disease. Free, effective COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, and mask-wearing, social distancing and other measures also help.

Schwartz responded that “the visit suspension is not permanent. Our goal is to safely resume in-person visits at all facilities. We are actively working on reinstating the visits as soon as it is safely possible to do. New COVID-19 visitation guidelines for correctional settings are being crafted and reviewed.

“Unfortunately, it’s not a quick or simple process. It needs to be noted that prisons and jails face unique challenges. They have large, contained populations of people who cannot leave unless released through court or parole order. The Department of Public Safety has made no secret of the fact that our jails have all been burdened by extreme overcrowding for decades, and now added to that are the unique challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”


Write to Kokua Line at Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu 96813; call 529-4773; fax 529-4750; or email kokualine@staradvertiser.com.


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