Courts, cops, cells and COVID-19: Criminal justice system in Hawaii wrestles with virus threat

  • THOMAS

  • RECKTENWALD

  • ESPINDA

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread event postponements and cancellations, school campus closures and other measures, including social distancing, in an attempt to stop the spread of the potentially deadly virus.

But for the criminal justice system, closures and cancellations might not be an option. And close contact is the norm, especially in Hawaii, with serious jail and prison overcrowding, in-custody arraignments in District Court that have been likened to a cattle call, and police having little choice but to come into close contact with suspects during arrests and, to a lesser extent, interrogations.

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii said Friday it has sent a letter to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, urging it to take immediate action to develop a proactive, evidence-based plan for the prevention and management of COVID-19 in the correctional and detention facilities under the department’s oversight.

The letter recommends the department develop a response plan in collaboration with the Department of Health and highlights several critical issues that should be addressed, including educating people in custody and staff about steps to prevent the illness, provision of hygiene supplies, data collection and treatment.

“Under the constitution, the over 5,000 people under (DPS) custody across the state and in Arizona have a right to a safe environment, and here that means having a plan in case of an outbreak in jail or prison,” said Matteo Caballero, ACLU Hawaii legal director. He said the department “needs to take appropriate steps to ensure that people under their care and custody will be protected and their lives valued during a potential COVID-19 outbreak.”

A majority of Hawaii’s post-conviction felony inmates are in the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, a private facility owned and operated by CoreCivic.

State Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda had already announced that, effective Friday, all correctional facilities have suspended personal visits for inmates.

“We understand how important visits are to the inmates as well as their family members, but we also understand that COVID-19 may eventually be present at one of our facilities, and that is why, out of an abundance of caution, we are suspending personal visits at our facilities statewide,” Espinda said. “The health and safety of the public, our staff and the inmates they oversee is of paramount importance to us, and we are taking steps to protect them.”

At this point, the ban does not affect visits to inmates by their lawyers.

As of Feb. 29, Hawaii Community Correctional Center, which has an operating bed capacity of 226 inmates, had a population of 408 inmates — 325 men and 83 women. The other facility on Hawaii Island, Kulani Correctional Facility, is the only prison in the state that wasn’t overcrowded, with 161 inmates, all men, in a facility designed to hold 200.

The department said it “has gone to great lengths to make sure a comprehensive plan is in place to safeguard the health of all inmates and staff in the correctional facilities” and said no inmates meet the “persons under investigation” criteria for COVID-19.

The department said it is doing more frequent sanitizing of facilities, ensuring there are adequate supplies of hand soap and cleaning supplies, making health care staff available to inmates to answer questions, and reminding them of ways to help prevent the spread of germs.

The state Judiciary on Thursday said it’s asking anyone in receipt of a summons for jury service who has a fever, cough or other respiratory symptoms; has returned to Hawaii within the last 14 days after traveling internationally; or who has COVID-19 or has been in close contact with a person who has or is suspected of having it, to call the court to reschedule jury service.

“Potential jurors are required by law to come to court when summoned, and we want them to know they can reschedule until their situation allows them to serve without risk to themselves or those around them.,” Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald said in a statement. “… The health and safety of everyone coming to our court facilities is of utmost concern to us.”

Those in a jury pool will have close contact with others, whether it’s in the courtroom gallery during jury selection, in the jury box or the jury room.

Potential jurors who are at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 should also call the jury pool office at 961-7646. This includes people who are 60 and older or have underlying health conditions, including heart disease, lung disease or diabetes; have weakened immune systems; or are pregnant.

The Judiciary also sent its personnel and local attorneys assurances that the courts “have redoubled their efforts to clean high-traffic areas more frequently.”

It also is allowing attorneys and self-represented litigants whose scheduled appearances require interisland travel to appear by telephone or video conference as permitted by court rules.

“The COVID-19 situation is rapidly evolving. We will be as flexible as possible during these challenging times to ensure the safety of our court users, while maintaining access to justice,” Recktenwald said. “We continue to examine all possible alternatives to in-person visits and will provide updates.”

Police are on the front lines of the criminal justice system, and the Hawaii Police Department said it’s also taking measures to ensure they don’t contract or spread the coronavirus.

“We’ve asked our cleaning staff to upgrade our disinfecting,” said Assistant Chief Sam Thomas. “Officers are doing more sanitizing of themselves and the same thing that (officials are) recommending to the public — washing hands, watching out for people who are sick.

“And we’re telling employees if they have fevers to stay home.”

Thomas said that while police have to apprehend suspects, hold them in the cell block until they’re taken to court or released from custody, they’re also taking measures to limit public contact as much as possible.

“Shortly, the public is going to see signs going up at the public entrances to the police stations, basically asking if they’ve got a fever or a cough to stay away and call us on the phone instead. Or if it’s an emergency to call 911,” he said.

“We’re awaiting some other protective materials — gowns, gloves and N95 masks — so we can try to even more so minimize our exposure if we go into a situation where we know somebody may have the illness.

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“We’re trying to limit interaction so that we don’t start losing our public safety first responders to illness. We’re also trying to take precautions to make ourselves safe. But if we catch it and come to work, then we can be the ones to expose the public, so we’re trying to be mindful.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.