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Hawaii: OCCC Mental Health Care Fails, Prison Staff Fired

by Monte McCoin

Dr. Mark Mitchell believes that he and a number of other prison medical staffers were fired because they were in the process of returning the Oahu Community Correctional Center’s (OCCC) mental health care system to compliance with U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) standards.

“I think we rocked the boat,” Mitchell told Hawaii News Now during a July 6, 2017 interview.

Mitchell was hired as a branch administrator in September 2008 just as the DOJ filed a lawsuit which claimed OCCC failed to provide “constitutionally adequate mental health care to detainees.” Shortly afterwards the DOJ approved Mitchell’s corrective action plan, which included hiring several trained mental health workers. His plan was to stabilize prisoners either through medication or counseling, then encourage them to continue treatment upon their release. The plan also set specifics as to how quickly prisoners are diagnosed, the number of treatment hours they receive, the process for suicide checks and pre-release requirements.

The DOJ settled its lawsuit in June 2015, saying that OCCC was in compliance. See: United States v. State of Hawaii, U.S.D.C. (D. Hawaii), Case No. 1:08-cv-00585-JMS-KSC. The following month, Dr. Lori Karan, OCCC’s medical director, was the first prison official to be fired. Her attorney, Eric Seitz, said the Hawaii Department of Public Safety’s (DPS) decision to fire the medical administrators shows the agency has a “mentality that says you don’t trust them, you don’t want to empower them, you don’t want them to do what’s necessary.” He added that DPS did not try to maintain the level of mental health services required by the DOJ once the settlement was reached.

Dr. Mitchell said there simply aren’t enough employees to maintain adequate mental health services at OCCC. DPS Director Nolan Espinda stated, “I am not denying that there is an impact on vacancies that occur and that a snapshot in any given moment during the quality assurance survey may result in lower levels of service than would be ideal.” He added, however, “I would hesitate to equate the number of vacancies with our ability to provide a safe, secure and healthy environment for the inmates.”

DPS officials said of the 37 job positions in OCCC’s mental health section, 27 are filled and they are working to fill the remaining 10. 


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