HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The OCCC outbreak grew significantly Saturday, with 42 more inmates confirmed positive for COVID-19 along with nine additional staff members.
The new positives bring to 166 the number of inmates at Oahu Community Correctional Center who have tested positive for the virus. Twenty-eight staff have also been confirmed positive.
The alarming new numbers come amid a growing debate about how to handle non-violent offenders at OCCC, Hawaii’s largest jail. The faciity has long struggled with overcrowding, making the prospect of slowing the spread of COVID-19 there all the more daunting.
On Friday, Department of Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda told state Supreme Court justices considering a request for an inmate release that the latest inmate count at OCCC is 968.
They are in 19 “living units,” and 623 of them are sharing 288 cells — meaning two to three inmates are in an individual cell and the rest are in dorms.
Public Safety is working with the state to continue mass testing efforts.
At Friday’s hearing, deputy Public Defender Susan Arnett called for the immediate release of some inmates to reduce overcrowding. “Certainly petty misdemeanors can be released they’d be released in a weeks anyway,” she told the justices.
State Attorney General Clare Connors said that required approval from health officials.
“The Department of Health already has weighed in and has asked for a list of all persons being released from OCCC so that it can do an assessment of risk and exposure,” Connors said.
Connors pointed out that an inmate with a negative test could be a hidden carrier.
The state Supreme Court justices will issue an order on what will happen next.
Meanwhile, deep cleaning and contact tracing efforts are also said to be underway.
The rise in cases is causing concern among 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.
"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.