Mass Prison Testing Of Inmates Questioned By State Commission

Sep 18, 2020

The oversight commission for Hawaiʻi’s jails and prisons is raising concerns over the state’s plan to mass test inmates for COVID-19. The state Department of Public Safety maintains its prison population is a priority for testing, but at their monthly meeting, the commissioners disagreed, saying it is jails that are more of a worry.

Former state Public Safety Director Ted Sakai says the Neighbor Island jails or community correctional centers need COVID-19 testing the most right now.

"The Neighbor Island CCCs is where you have a lot of in and out activity. They’re situated in the communities and the space is very limited," said Saiki, who sits on the Oversight Commission for Hawaiʻi’s Correctional Systems. "The problem is if it gets in, it just takes off like wildfire," he said.

That's most worrisome for inmates housed on the Big Island, where the pandemic has surged since mid-August. Commissioner Martha Torney says the Hawaiʻi Community Correctional Center or HCCC in Hilo has been overcrowded for decades.

"[It is] Overcrowded to such a point that folks are forced to use management cells for regular housing and use program spaces for regular housing. I hope that we, the commission, have some impact on helping the state make decisions on how they’ll relieve that overcrowding," he said.

The four-member commission was established by the state Legislature last year in part to set inmate capacity limits for Hawaiʻi’s overcrowded jails and prisons.

Last week, the group released a report setting “emergency capacity” limits to be achieved under the pandemic. But the all-volunteer commission had its hands tied after the state refused to release funding to fill the board’s only paid position. 

The Department of Public Safety said in a news release yesterday that it is working with state health officials to conduct mass testing at all correctional facilities statewide. It started at the Waiawa Correctional Facility on Tuesday.

The first group of results showed all 152 WCF inmates tested negative and 77 are pending, according to DPS. 

The department said the order of facilities to be tested is still being worked out. Officials are working with the health department and Hawaii National Guard to coordinate testing of correctional officers and staff.

At the Oahu Community Correctional Center, the department reported 5 positive inmate test results from 102 tested. Eleven staff were tested with one positive result.

Eighty-seven OCCC staff, 29 active, and 297 inmates, 19 active, have tested positive for the virus.

Meanwhile, inmates from state prisons are still being released under the Hawaii Supreme Court's order to ease overcrowding during the pandemic.