Lawsuit alleges poor conditions at Hawaii correctional facilities contributed to COVID outbreaks

Published: Jun. 8, 2021 at 11:22 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 8, 2021 at 11:27 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii’s Public Safety Department came up with a COVID mitigation plan in March, but failed to implement it even after several outbreaks, attorneys for inmates allege.

A new lawsuit against the state also says the Public Safety Department violated its own COVID policies repeatedly, including by having up to 60 inmates in a single room and mixing sick inmates with healthy ones.

Attorney Gina Szeto-Wong, of the Law Office of Eric Seitz, said the inmates they represent want a special master appointed to enforce the rules.

“We’re not in a circumstance where they weren’t aware of the problem,” said Szeto-Wong, adding an ongoing outbreak at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center should come as no surprise.

The Hilo facility now has 148 active cases, and nearly half the inmate population became infected within two weeks. Meanwhile, since the start of the pandemic, 2,400 Hawaii inmates and staff have contracted COVID.

Seven people have died.

“They have been housing them in dog cages and in other rooms with no running water or toilet for years now,” said Szeto-Wong. “And none of that changed after the outbreaks.”

Erica Chavaries, sister of an HCCC inmate, said overcrowding means COVID protocols simply can’t be followed. “They all have to use the same toilet, which is placed in other units with inmates who do not have COVID so they’re definitely not following guidelines and practicing safe distancing,” she said.

Similar complaints surfaced after outbreaks at Oahu Community Correctional Facility, Saguaro Correctional Center, Halawa Correctional Facility, Maui Community Correctional Center and Waiawa Correctional Facility.

“The staff are scared, the inmates are scared,” said Szeto-Wong. “What I hear is fear when I talk to the inmates, and the families are really frightened.”

In the early days of the pandemic, the governor did appoint a new acting Public Safety director and instituted new protocols that reduced overcrowding.

On Tuesday, Gov. David Ige acknowledged they are still looking for ways to improve.

“We continue to look at the situations in the jails and are working through the process to identify interested private sector partners,” he said.

“And continuing to look to some kind of agreement that would allow us to replace the jail facilities.”

“My fear is that it will inevitably spread to Kulani and if it’s not contained, it could spread to the rest of the Big Island,” said Szeto-Wong. “And that’s frightening.”

Hawaii News Now reached out to PSD, but a spokesperson says they were advised not to comment on pending legal matters.

The Attorney General’s Office will be filing a response on behalf of PSD in court.

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