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Attorney: Lawsuit over alarming spread of COVID in Hawaii prisons prompted change

Published: Nov. 14, 2021 at 5:37 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 15, 2021 at 6:23 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Civil rights attorneys said a recent settlement of a lawsuit over the spread of COVID in the state’s prison system is starting to pay off.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 2,900 inmates have gotten infected by the coronavirus. While nearly all have recovered, nine have died.

But in the last week, the state reported that in all nine of its prisons and jails, just one Big Island inmate got infected.

“There’s been a lot of progress. There has been a low incidence of cases in the last few weeks,” said attorney Eric Seitz, who sued the state on behalf of inmates and prison staffers who got sick

Seitz said settlement agreement of a lawsuit over the way prison officials handled the COVID crisis has forced prison officials to take the disease more seriously.

That settlement, which was finalized last week, requires prison officials to implement a COVID response plan based on CDC guidelines.

It also creates a five-person panel -- headed by a former judge and includes mental health professionals and prison officials -- to monitor the prison system’s COVID response plan.

“The inmates report to me directly that the department is much more concerned ... in terms of providing safety equipment, providing space where people could be isolated and quarantined,” said Seitz.

In court papers, the state generally agreed, saying the panel will provide “insight and accountability” and will provide “expert guidance as the DPS navigates this challenging health crisis.”

But prison reform advocate Kat Brady worries that the terms of the settlement will be hard to enforce because any report produced by the monitoring panel will remain secret.

“My problem with the settlement is that it is all private. This is a public institution using public money and shutting the public out,” she said.

With the prison’s current crowded conditions, she said a better approach would be to to continue the release of nonviolent inmates during the crisis.

“What we are doing is unconscionable, immoral and thoroughly disappointing,” she said.

To be sure, the settlement doesn’t end the litigation for inmates and staffers who got really sick or died. They and their families could still pursue the state for damages.

Besides nine inmates, Seitz said a handful of prison staffers also died of COVID.

“In my view, there’s no question of liability. The state did not do what it was required to do to protect both the inmates and the staff,” said Seitz.

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