Supreme Court holds hearing to discuss releasing OCCC inmates as COVID-19 cluster continues to grow


HONOLULU (KHON2) — The number of COVID cases at the Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC) continues to grow. According to the Department of Public Safety (DPS), 38 new inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since Thursday, Aug. 13.

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To date, there are 124 infected inmates and 19 staff members who have tested positive.

The DPS, with the help of the National Guard, is working to test all inmates and staff members.

The Hawaii Supreme Court held a hearing on Friday to release inmates due to the rapid spread of cases.

The office of the Public Defender urged the Supreme Court to release low-risk or non-violent inmates immediately.

“We’re not talking about releasing some sort of rampant, crime-violating folks into the community to put everyone at danger,” explained Deputy Public Defender Susan Arnett.

The office recommends pre-trial detainees, those charged with non-violent misdemeanors, or petty misdemeanors would be considered for release first.

So far, two of OCCC’s 19 modules have been completely tested. There is no timeframe on how long it will take to test the roughly 700 other inmates.

“We expect a significant more as we mass test the remainder of the 17 other units throughout OCCC,” said Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda.

Espinda admitted to Judge, Hon. Michael Wilson, that overcrowding at OCCC has led to COVID positive patients sharing a cell.

“Their COVID-positive condition won’t affect their cell mate?” asked Judge Wilson.

“I don’t make those decisions, we work with our health care unit,” said Espinda. “Under ideal conditions, every individual positive finding would be assigned to an individual cell but it’s a physical impossibility at this time.”

Attorney General Clare Connors said another worry is the high amounts of COVID cases across Oahu, and the Department of Health not being able to trace and contact all released inmates.

“And we subsequently find out this person has come into contact with a person who might be suspected, they might need to test in two days and we might not be able to find them,” she explained as a scenario saying testing is an on-the-spot deal. “We might have very well released into the community someone who is at-risk.”

The prosecutor’s office had three requests if inmates were to be released from the jails.

“We ask that they be negative, have a verified residence, and we also ask they naturally be given a date to return to court,” said acting Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Nadamoto.

Although there have been no inmates who have required hospitalizations, Arnett said two inmates were not accepted at Hawaii State Hospital on Thursday.

“They would not accept them because they are coming from OCCC where COVID has been,” she said.

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