HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - COVID-19 appears to be spreading uncontrollably at Oahu Community Correctional Center, where 70 additional inmates and seven more adult corrections officers have tested positive, the state Department of Public Safety announced Thursday.
The agency said the latest cases bring the total number of infected OCCC inmates to 86, but the Health Department put the number at 92.
Meanwhile, the agency said 24 OCCC staff have tested positive.
A figure that was especially concerning: Of 110 inmates tested Tuesday, 70 tested positive.
Officials said Public Safety is working with the state to continue mass testing efforts. All remaining inmates will be tested in the coming days.
DPS says the Department of Health is coordinating testing efforts alongside the National Guard.
Deep cleaning and contact tracing efforts are said to be underway.
The rise in cases is causing concerns with prison reform advocates and those involved in the system. They say that jails and prisons are “like petri dishes,” where the virus can spread quickly throughout the prison population.
A former inmate, just released this week, says their lives are at risk.
"People are like sitting ducks in there. It's coming for them and no one is giving them any information whatsoever," said Jason Lewis.
Lewis was released from OCCC on Monday and immediately got tested for COVID-19.
He says he is grateful his test came back negative given the circumstances he was living in.
“I was packed inside a van with four other individuals, I don’t know what their status was and we were shoulder to shoulder,” Lewis said.
Lewis says there is minimal social distancing and some guards still aren’t wearing masks.
“There was an ACO who came in to the unit in the morning with no mask on and just acted like everything was OK,” he said.
Documents from adult corrections officers on Maui show similar concerns, saying “…it is optional for the work line to wear masks…” and that “All new admissions should be isolated for 5 days…” instead of the CDC’s recommended 14.
The head of the department blames it on the overcrowding.
“Our jails have been and continue to be grossly overcrowded and it is greatly difficult to accommodate a full 14-day quarantine at the varying jails on the four different islands,” said Nolan Espinda.
The help with the overcrowding issue, the Office of Public Defender has once again filed a petition to immediately release non-violent inmates from OCCC.
“It’s frustrating because we’ve been clamoring for this for about four or five months now and now some of these things are being put into effect after the barn door is open,” said Appellant Supervisor Susan Arnett.
Acting Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Nadamoto has expressed concern.
In the spring, 327 inmates who were released from OCCC because of coronavirus concerns and 130 were re-arrested.
Arnett says that is not an excuse.
“A basic rule is that you look after their health. You not only treat their health, but you don’t subject them to catching a fatal disease. So, we have a responsibility in that regard whether we like it or not,” Arnett said.
The state Supreme Court has scheduled an oral argument for Friday at 11 a.m.
This story may be updated.