State AG repudiates lawsuit over HCCC outbreak

  • JOHNSON

  • MAHOE

  • GREEN

  • CONNORS

State Attorney General Clare Connors responded Wednesday to a federal class-action lawsuit filed by 11 Hawaii inmates — including five at Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo — over conditions and practices in jails and prisons the plaintiffs claim caused COVID-19 outbreaks.

In a document filed in U.S. District Court in Honolulu, Connors said the plaintiffs “have failed to satisfy the necessary requirements” for a court to grant an injunction.

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Connors also argued that appointment of a special master who’s an expert in public health to oversee a mitigation plan at the correctional facilities is “simply unnecessary.”

According to Connors, the Department of Public Safety, one of the defendants, “already has in place a pandemic response plan that was prepared in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, and is reviewed and updated regularly as the CDC guidelines and scientific information evolve.”

Other defendants in the case are Gov. David Ige, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, plus current and former DPS directors Max Otani and Nolan Espinda, respectively.

In addition, according to the state, the relief requested by the plaintiffs “is also unnecessary because (the department) already has a comprehensive plan to educate and promote COVID-19 vaccination for all state inmates and (DPS) staff.”

HCCC has a current outbreak of the novel coronavirus. As of Wednesday, 244 inmates at the Hilo jail have tested positive, and there are 69 active cases, according to the DPS. There are 69 cases listed as active positives, and 167 listed as recovered. In addition, there have been 22 reported infections among HCCC staff, with six current cases and 16 recovered.

There have been no reported hospitalizations or deaths at HCCC because of the outbreak, the DPS said.

As of Monday, HCCC reported there were 284 inmates in facilities designed to hold 206. Perhaps because of the movement of inmates from HCCC to Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu and Kulani Correctional Facility on the Big Island during the outbreak, that’s 60 fewer inmates than the 344 reported two weeks earlier.

One of the inmates moved to Halawa is a plaintiff in the suit, Dustin Snedeker-Abadilla, who has tested positive for COVID-19. Others include Bella Carvalho, who claims to have been moved into a cell with Kuuipo Kalani, Tearon Pacheco-Fernandez and Juanita Grammer, all plaintiffs, after she had informed jail officials she had tested positive for COVID. Kalani claims to have tested positive a few days later.

Pacheco-Fernandez said she was placed in the intake “dog cages” without running water or a toilet prior to being housed in a cell. She said she saw detainees there “defecate and urinate on themselves,” and she and Grammer claim to have been placed with inmates with serious mental issues and suicidal tendencies.

All allege the conditions of their incarceration violate their constitutional rights.

The state contends in its response that the DPS has taken “measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 at HCCC and to address the conditions that may have contributed to the outbreak.”

“These efforts include the transfer of inmates from HCCC to other state correctional facilities and collaborating with the Judiciary to identify inmates … who qualify for release so that HCCC can discontinue use of HCCC multipurpose room (i.e. fishbowl) and holding areas (i.e. dog cages) as inmate housing,” the document states. “HCCC inmates are not being housed under the conditions that they claim violated their constitutional rights, and HCCC now has more space to medically isolate, quarantine and cohort inmates.”

The fishbowl, which is a large room with a television, has housed 40 to 50 inmates at a time, according to the plaintiffs.

The state’s response claims that since the transfer of inmates from HCCC to other facilities, “approximately 14 inmates are being housed in the multipurpose room” and that DPS “plans to transfer another 13 to 16 inmates from HCCC to (Halawa) within the next three to five days.”

Connors’ motion claims vaccination clinics are being held “four times a week, specifically on Tuesdays through Friday.”

“Since the start of the HCCC outbreak, 65 inmates have been vaccinated,” according to the document.

A sworn affidavit by DPS Deputy Director Tommy Johnson stated that overcrowding at HCCC made it difficult to segregate inmates in strict accordance with CDC guidance because of gang-related security concerns and “the initial widespread refusal of HCCC inmates to be tested for COVID-19.”

HCCC Warden Cramer Mahoe also stated in an affidavit that “inmates widely refused to be tested for COVID-19.” He added that overcrowding, staff shortages and a low inmate vaccination rate were factors in dealing with the COVID cluster.

Those statements echo those made by Green, a Big Island physician, in a May 31 livestream. He said inmates and DPS workers have shown a reluctance to be inoculated, “and that’s why they’re having outbreaks.”

According to Mahoe, new inmates “are placed in a 10-day intake quarantine to the extent that space, staffing and security conditions allow.” He added gang activity in the prison makes it difficult to place inmates in cohorts because of the potential for assaults.

Mahoe said DPS has also met with the Judiciary and the county prosecutor in an attempt “to reduce the number of new inmates.” He said he’s also consulted with the Department of Health, the National Guard and the county for testing and vaccination.

And in addition to the transfer of inmates to other facilities, guards have been temporarily reassigned from other facilities to HCCC, according to Mahoe.

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A hearing hasn’t yet been set on the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction.

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

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