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ACLU: Prepare coronavirus plan for jails, prisons

Inmate transport from Maui jail did not happen due to mix-up

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii urged officials to develop a plan for the prevention and management of the coronavirus in jails and prisons, as the state suspended personal visits to inmates Friday.

No inmates have met criteria to be under observation for COVID-19, state Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said Friday.

She said one Maui Community Correctional Center inmate, who was diagnosed with Influenza B, was held back from being transported to court Friday, “which is a normal part of our health protocol for inmates who have a contagious illness.”

“Unfortunately, during this super-sensitive time, where everyone is on high alert, there was some inadvertent miscommunication about the inmate’s status that resulted in the cancellation of transports from MCCC to court today,” she said. “The miscommunication was cleared up and communication procedures were revised so it doesn’t happen again.”

In a letter Thursday, ACLU Legal Director Mateo Caballero asked the Public Safety Department “to immediately develop evidence-based and proactive plans for the prevention and management of COVID-19” in its correctional and detention facilities.

“People in prisons and jails are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses,” Caballero said. “They are housed in close quarters and are often in poor health. Without the active engagement of correctional staff, they have little ability to inform themselves about preventive measures, or to take such measures if they do manage to get such information.”

His letter said more than 5,000 people are in state correctional facilities, including some Hawaii inmates housed in Arizona.

Schwartz said that “our Health Care Division has gone to great lengths to make sure a comprehensive plan is in place to safeguard the health of all inmates and staff in our facilities.”

“Although there have not been any signs of community spread of COVID-19 in Hawaii, the situation is still fluid, and our staff are taking every precaution for the health and safety of the public, our staff and the inmates under our supervision,” Schwartz said. “We also continue to monitor our entire system and the latest informational updates released by the state and federal health authorities.”

While personal inmate visits were suspended Friday, other scheduled official and attorney visits were allowed to continue.

Wailuku attorney John Parker, whose clients include some incarcerated at the jail, said face-to-face visits are important.

“It’s vital,” he said. “You get to look in their eyes. They get to look in your eyes. It builds a bond of trust or destroys it, either way. It’s important for the inmate to feel like their attorney cares for them as a client.”

Parker said that from what he has seen, visits from family members and friends are even more important to inmates.

“It gives them a sense of being connected to the outside world and mattering,” Parker said. “More than anything, a visit from your family and friends makes an inmate feel that ‘I still matter to somebody.’ ”

But he said he doesn’t fault the department for stopping the personal visits.

“I think it’s a wise decision they have made because somebody’s going to come in who’s infected, and a prison is just a smoldering petri dish,” Parker said.

Both the Public Safety Department and state Judiciary directed staff to increase the frequency of cleaning and sanitizing high-traffic areas. In the courts, those include restrooms, elevators, door handles, bannisters, counters, tables, chairs and benches.

The state Judiciary is asking potential jurors to call the court to reschedule their jury service if they have a fever, cough or other respiratory ailment; have returned to the state within the last 14 days after traveling internationally; or who have COVID-19 or been in close contact with someone who has or is suspected of having the virus.

Those at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 also are asked to call the court. They include people age 60 and older; those who have underlying health conditions, including heart disease, lung disease or diabetes; those who have weakened immune systems; and those who are pregnant.

Potential jurors are those who have received summonses for jury service in the mail.

In Maui County, potential jurors are asked to call the 2nd Circuit Jury Pool Office at 244-2757 or (800) 315-5879.

“The health and safety of everyone coming to our court facilities is of utmost concern to us,” said Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald. “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.”

Attorneys and self-represented litigants whose scheduled appearances require interisland travel may ask to appear by telephone or by videoconference 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.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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