HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – Hawaii’s public safety division created a plan to contain COVID in March but has not implemented it after multiple outbreaks, inmate lawyers claim.
A new lawsuit against the state also states that the public safety department has repeatedly violated its own COVID guidelines, including by placing up to 60 inmates in a single room and mixing sick with healthy inmates.
Attorney Gina Szeto-Wong of the Eric Seitz law firm said the inmates they represent want a special master appointed to enforce the rules.
“We are not in a situation where they were unaware of the problem,” said Szeto-Wong, adding that 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 of the inmates became infected within two weeks. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 2,400 Hawaiian inmates and employees have been infected with COVID.
Seven people died.
“They have kept her in dog cages and other rooms without running water or a toilet for years,” said Szeto-Wong. “And none of that has changed after the outbreaks.”
Erica Chavaries, sister of an HCCC inmate, said overcrowding means that COVID protocols simply cannot be followed. “They all need to use the same toilet that is in other units with inmates who don’t have COVID so they are definitely not following guidelines and practicing safe distancing,” she said.
Similar complaints have surfaced following outbreaks at the Oahu Community Correctional Facility, Saguaro Correctional Center, Halawa Correctional Facility, Maui Community Correctional Center, and Waiawa Correctional Facility.
“The staff is scared, the inmates are scared,” said Szeto-Wong. “What I hear is fear when I talk to the inmates, and the families are really scared.”
In the early days of the pandemic, the governor appointed a new acting director of public security and introduced new protocols that reduced overcrowding.
On Tuesday, Governor David Ige admitted that they are still looking for ways to improve.
“We continue to look at the situations in the prisons and work through the process to identify interested private sector partners,” he said.
“And we’re still looking for some kind of agreement that would allow us to replace the prison facilities.”
“My fear is that it will inevitably spread to Kulani and if not contained it could spread to the rest of the Big Island,” said Szeto-Wong. “And that’s terrifying.”
Hawaii News Now reached out to PSD, but a spokesman said they had been advised not to comment on any pending legal matters.
The attorney general will file a response in court on behalf of PSD.
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