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Class action suit over state’s handling of COVID in prisons results in new panel to oversee health concerns

Published: Sep. 5, 2021 at 5:22 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 5, 2021 at 7:13 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A settlement has been reached in a class action suit between Hawaii inmates and the state Department of Public Safety.

The suit challenged the state’s handling of the pandemic in prisons and jails.

The settlement resulted in a new five-person panel that will be given free rein to go into the prisons, speak with inmates, medical and correctional staff and assess prison grounds.

Attorney Eric Seitz said the panel includes two medical experts.

Among them: Dr. Kim Thorburn, who was hired as the state’s first medical director for the prison medical system because of a lawsuit that Seitz was involved in back in the 1980s.

“And she created and built the medical system in the prisons,” said Seitz. “She’s very good when it comes to prison medicine.”

Dr. Homer Venters is also on the panel.

Seitz said he was the head of medical services for the prisons in New York City.

“When he retired from that position, he was spending the last couple of years going around the country, as an expert helping prisons do exactly what we’re hoping to do here,” said Seitz.

In addition, there are two members from the state Department of Public Safety on the panel who were appointed by the state and retired Judge Daniel Foley.

The panel will be making recommendations on what needs to be implemented to ensure the safety of both inmates and staff to prevent outbreaks and further spread.

Recommendations include social distancing, testing, quarantine procedures and vaccine availability.

More than 2,700 Hawaii inmates have tested positive for COVID during the pandemic, including as part of several large outbreaks. Nine inmates have died.

Seitz said the panel is a step in the right direction.

“This for us is basically a stage in this litigation, this is the first step, we want to make sure that the places are safe or as safe as they can be,” said Seitz.

And then once that’s accomplished, we’ll go back and address possible damages actions that can be brought for people who got COVID and who died under circumstances which were preventable.”

The panel must give 72-hour notice before visiting a correctional facility.

The Attorney General’s Office released the following statement: “Both DPS and the representatives of the inmate class are satisfied that the settlement is fair, adequate, and reasonable.”

Seitz said members of the panel are expected to begin gathering information in two weeks.

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