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‘An utter failure': Legal, medical experts fault state for massive outbreak at OCCC

Oahu Community Correctional Center
Oahu Community Correctional Center
Published: Aug. 16, 2020 at 7:41 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 16, 2020 at 7:43 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Experts blasted the state for the massive COVID-19 outbreak at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, saying prison officials have not done enough to stop the spread.

“Gross negligence. This is like deliberate indifference,” said Kat Brady, director the Community Alliance on Prisons.

So far, 170 inmates and 30 staffers have tested positive for COVID-19, but Brady and others believe that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Brady said prison officials have only tested inmates in two of the prison’s 19 modules.

Given the uncontrolled spread of the virus at the state’s largest jail, state Supreme Court justices on Sunday ordered the release of some non-violent inmates.

Attorney Eric Seitz said he believes that the prison’s cases are contributing to community spread.

Seitz represents a former inmate — Joshua Espinoza — who was placed in one of the two OCCC modules where the virus was reported.

Earlier this month, Espinoza was transferred out of the prison to a local drug rehabilitation center without being tested. He recently tested positive for the coronavirus at a local hospital.

“Prison officials knew he was exposed to the virus and released him nonetheless,” said Seitz, who added that his client is now in a hotel under self-quarantine, getting no help from prison officials.

“I’m sure Mr. Espinoza is not the only one out there. They let people out everyday. My best guess is there are scores of people out in the community who have exposed and are spreading the illness.”

Seitz said that back in April, when there were no confirmed cases at Hawaii’s prisons, he and several medical experts predicted that an outbreak in the prisons system would occur if the inmate population wasn’t reduced and if prison officials didn’t take steps to disinfect the facility.

Although the courts have reduced the population earlier this year, Seitz said the number of prisoners has returned to pre-pandemic, overcrowded levels.

“My guess is probably half to two-thirds of the (OCCC) prison have been infected by this,” said Seitz, who said the state has bungled its efforts to combat the disease.

“Gov. David Ige is basically just playing the violin while the city burns. And it’s just horrible ... The director of Public Safety is inept and incompetent.”

The Department of Public Safety said the decision to release Espinoza was made by the courts and not them. They said testing at OCCC is ongoing.

“The facilities follow the PSD COVID-19 pandemic plan, which falls in line with (the Centers for Disease Control) and (Department of Health) recommendations for quarantining inmates within the facility,” said DPS Director Nolan Espinda.

To be sure, the spike in cases at the Kalihi prison has prompted renewed calls for Espinda’s removal.

“Because he hasn’t done his job and he hasn’t shown the proper concern for inmates that are under his control,” state Sen. Clarence Nishihara said, of Espinda.

“To me, the department has been negligent.”

Other experts said the Health Department is also to blame.

“We’ve known for months and months that conjugate living facilities — prisons, homeless shelters, nursing homes — are at risk yet there has been no guidance,” said Dr. Scott Miscovich of Premier Medical Centers

“You have to test everyone. So this is an utter failure of the Department of Health to follow any type of reasonable guideline.”

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