‘Inhumane’ conditions at HCCC trigger lawsuit as outbreak continues

  • PITTULLO

  • Photo by JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Former HCCC inmate Justin Pittullo spoke Tuesday to the Tribune-Herald in Hilo.

A former pretrial detainee at Hawaii Community Correctional Center disputes Lt. Gov. Josh Green’s statement that an outbreak of COVID-19 at Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo is because of the reluctance of inmates to be vaccinated.

Justin Pittullo bonded out of HCCC June 1 after spending approximately a month incarcerated at the Hilo jail. He said the first half of May was spent in a large room called “the fishbowl” where there were “about 50 or 60 inmates,” and the second half at the Komohana housing module.

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Pittullo said Tuesday he was in Komohana when he requested vaccination on May 17 or 18.

Green, a Big Island physician, made his claim in a May 31 livestream, saying only 25% to 50% of inmates have been inoculated, “and that’s why they’re having outbreaks.”

Pittullo blamed Green’s claim that all inmates had the opportunity to be vaccinated for a disturbance at HCCC on the evening of June 4.

“It’s false. It’s categorically false,” Pittullo said.

“He’s putting everyone in the same category, like, ‘They’re just inmates.’ No. People are getting bailed out all the time, coming in and out all the time, going to court all the time. You can’t put us all into one group,” Pittullo said.

Pittullo, who faces charges of first-degree terroristic threatening, first-degree property damage, second-degree tampering, second-degree trespassing, harassment and misuse of 911, said the fishbowl was being used as a “quarantine room, but people were coming in and out all the time.”

“Structurally, that makes no sense,” he said. “They could have quarantined people in individual cells as they came in. For example, if three people came into the fishbowl at the same time, you keep them in that group, right?

“The problem with that is not everybody gets along. You’ve got different gangs, you’ve got (sex offenders).”

In a statement Tuesday, DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz disputed Pittullo’s claim that he was denied vaccination, saying the department “offers the vaccine to all jail and prison inmates.”

“HCCC offers COVID-19 vaccination during the initial intake process,” Schwartz said. “Inmates may also request vaccination at any time through the sick-call program, on sign-up sheets in each housing unit, or by verbal request to staff. During the month of May, vaccinations at HCCC occurred on May 10, 11, 20 and 28.”

Schwartz on Tuesday reported 42 recovered inmates at HCCC, bringing the total active positive inmate cases at the Hilo jail down to 69 and the total recovered up to 167. There were no new HCCC inmate or staff results received Tuesday.

Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu received 20 inmate test results. Of that number, nine are positive and 11 are negative. DPS identified all nine as recent transfers from HCCC. They were already in a mandatory transfer-related quarantine.

As of Monday, HCCC reported 284 inmates in facilities designed to hold 206. Perhaps because of the movement of inmates from HCCC to Halawa during the outbreak, that’s 60 fewer inmates than the 344 reported two weeks earlier.

Among those now in Halawa is Dustin Snedker-Abadilla, a pre-trial detainee who tested positive on May 29 at HCCC after a vaccination on May 20. He’s one of five inmates who are among 11 plaintiffs in a class-action federal lawsuit filed by Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz. The others are Kuuipo Kalani, Bella Carvalho, Tearon Pacheco-Fernandez and Juanita Grammer. Another plaintiff is Francisco Alvarado, an inmate at Kulani Correctional Facility on the Big Island.

Pittullo said he’s working with a Big Island attorney on his own lawsuit. He added he may later decide to join the class-action suit

He described the conditions at HCCC “appalling” and said he knows “hunting dogs that are treated better.”

“The way we can measure a society’s health is by how we treat our lowest class,” Pittullo said. “For example, the inmate population, or the deprived or the so-called ‘homeless’ — people who can’t afford to put food on the table and resort to, you know, drug use or crime.

“This is obviously happening on the east side of the Big Island, and I want people to understand that if we want to measure our systemic health, we need to measure people who are down here,” he added, extending a hand, palm down, toward the floor.

Seitz, whose lawsuit, filed June 8, names the DPS, Gov. David Ige and Green as defendants, called the HCCC situation “one of the worst outrages I have observed in 50 years of covering civil rights law.”

The suit seeks a judgment that DPS practices and actions “created unconstitutional conditions of confinement and punishment” and that the defendants be ordered “to create and implement a mitigation plan, overseen by a qualified public health expert.”

“Much of our information … is coming from staff there who are equally appalled, because many of them have gotten sick,” Seitz said.

Marie Ahuna, an adult corrections sergeant, observed in a sworn affidavit “it is nearly impossible, with the current policies in place, to meaningfully separate COVID-positive detainees from COVID-negative detainees.”

Toni Rosete-Arellano, who works in records at HCCC, said in another affidavit she is eight months pregnant and “afraid to return to work because of my condition and the current COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.”

Rosete-Arellano described “chain-linked dog cages, approximately five feet by 10 feet, next to the office where I work.”

She described the cages as “unsanitary” and added that a week before the outbreak “there was a suicidal inmate and an inmate with serious mental issues yelling and spitting at each other in the dog cages.”

Complaints also include inmate requests to use the bathroom being denied.

Seitz noted several COVID outbreaks in Hawaii lockups and at Saguaro Correctional Facility in Arizona, a for-profit private prison holding Hawaii inmates.

“But Hilo is the worst, because the conditions there are the worst,” Seitz said. “And frankly, I think it’s inhumane the way the inmates are treated there by the lockdown, and being made to sleep on the floor in large rooms or in dog cages and moved around. And I think your community should be appalled that people are coming and going from the prison, both staff and inmates who are being released or transferred or brought in, in uncontrolled fashion. “

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A spokesman for the state attorney general declined comment Tuesday, but said his office will file a response today to a motion by Seitz for a preliminary injunction.

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

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