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COVID-19 in Hawaii’s Lockups: Still a Success Story but Cracks Starting to Show

Four DPS guards also tested positive, one at OCCC, another at the medium-security Halawa Correctional Facility – the state’s largest prison – and two more at the minimum-security Waiawa Correctional Facility. The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) also announced that a staff member had tested positive at Honolulu’s Federal Detention Center (FDC).

BOP previously announced in July 2020 that two FDC Honolulu detainees had received positive test results, though one set of results did not come back before the female detainee had been released. BOP said the infected individuals were in isolation and their contacts were being traced and tested.

None of those who tested positive had died. The infected DPS staff members have been quarantined, and the prisoner at OCCC was placed in isolation for at least 14 days pending a doctor’s review before being released, according to state Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda. BOP follows a similar protocol. The OCCC prisoner’s test followed possible exposure before arriving at the jail, Espinda added.

At the beginning of March 2020, the state was still six weeks away from its peak of coronavirus infections in the general population, and DPS was at risk of an outbreak due to its crowded facilities, then operating at 187 percent of capacity with three and four prisoners sharing single occupant cells. As a preventative measure, the state Supreme Court ordered the release of many low-level, nonviolent pretrial detainees being held because they could not afford bail.

But State Public Defender James Tabe took a further step. Along with defense and prosecuting attorneys, as well as prison and parole officials, he formed an unlikely coalition to promote additional releases. After the group’s discussions, retired appeals court Judge Daniel R. Foley assembled a list of its recommendations for the state Supreme Court to consider. The court in turn put together a procedure for trial court judges to expedite release decisions.

These “mini-trials” began in April 2020, with prosecuting and defense attorneys arguing before state court judges who then made release decisions. Most turned out well, but a few did not, leading state Attorney General Clare Connors and three county prosecutors to warn that the program was a danger to public safety.

In some cases, there was recidivism, but it often occurred among people who were so near the end if their sentences that release was inevitable in any case. In other cases, pretrial detainees who could afford bail went on to commit violence. One case receiving negative press involved a detainee charged with attempted murder, but that early release was recommended by the prison’s intake center, not a “mini-trial” judge.

Releases for probation and parole violators were mainly granted to those who missed a phone or appointment due to problems associated with COVID-19, such as an inability to obtain transportation, and pretrial releases were overwhelmingly successful. In all, about 800 prisoners were released between March and June 2020, when the state Supreme Court lifted its order and ended “mini-trials” to expedite early release decisions.

But there is still crowding. DPS said OCCC, with 938 male and female prisoners as of August 3, 2020, was operating at over 149 percent of its design capacity of 628. Even before DPS announced its first cases, Honolulu prosecutor candidate Jacquie Esser said that “Hawaii was lucky.” Now its luck may have run out.

With 219 total cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents on August 9, 2020, Hawaii had the lowest overall infection rate of any state, according to a database maintained by The Washington Post. However, its 61 new cases reported that same week represented an increase of 69 percent, which was the nation’s highest rate.