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Prosecutors await ruling on inmates and virus

Maui does not have same COVID-19 issues as Oahu, prosecutor says

This photo of Maui Community Correctional Center in Wailuku was taken Friday afternoon. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The Maui County Prosecuting Attorney’s office opposes a mass release of inmates from Maui Community Correctional Center, saying issues related to a recent outbreak of COVID-19 at state jails and prisons are centered at Oahu facilities, not Maui.

Maui County Prosecutor Don Guzman said Tuesday that Neighbor Island prosecutors are awaiting word from the Hawaii Supreme Court on the possible release of inmates due to the COVID-19 pandemic as requested by the Office of the Public Defender in a petition last week.

The ruling could come this or next week, Guzman said.

There are currently no COVID-19 cases at MCCC. On Oahu, there are 215 inmates with COVID-19 at Oahu Community Correctional Center and one at Halawa Correctional Center, the Department of Public Safety reported Tuesday. An additional 39 staff members at Oahu facilities have tested positive for the virus.

On Monday, the high court issued new criteria and processes for the release of nonviolent inmates at OCCC. The Office of the Public Defender expressed urgency in the release of inmates in its petition to the high court due to the rapid spread of the virus.

Maui County Prosecuting Attorney Don Guzman said his office opposes a mass release of inmates from Maui Community Correctional Center, saying issues related to a recent outbreak of COVID-19 at state jails and prisons are centered at Oahu facilities, not Maui. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The Hawaii Supreme Court passed a similar set of rules and policies in April, which allowed inmates to petition for release. The program was discontinued in June after cases in the islands dropped.

Between 78 to 100 inmates were released from MCCC in the earlier program to bring the facility in line to its rated capacity.

In its response to the Public Defender’s petition, county prosecutors cited the absence of COVID-19 cases at MCCC and the relatively low number of cases in the Maui community, compared to Oahu.

Guzman said he would prefer to have the release of inmates handled on a case-by-case basis. His office said it would work quickly on any court procedures for release.

He estimated that possibly 56 inmates from MCCC could be eligible for release.

Guzman noted how the department has worked with the courts, Public Defender’s Office, private attorneys, Maui police, Health Department, Adult Client Services, MCCC and Department of Public Safety since March to reduce the inmate population.

“The state strongly opposes the mass release of inmates based solely upon their custody status,” wrote Andrew Martin, second prosecuting attorney, in the county’s response. “The significant public health emergency that COVID-19 poses to our community and to the adult correction officers, jail staff, and inmate population at the Maui Community Correctional Center (“MCCC”) is undeniable.

“The state also recognizes, however, the significant public safety concerns that would be raised by the mass release of inmates without allowing for the individualized assessment of those inmates’ dangerousness.”

Deputy Public Defender Ben Lowenthal, who is based on Maui, said Tuesday that “the COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis, and we see all across the country in jails and detention centers and other institutions, which hold large groups of people against their will, are extremely vulnerable to clusters and can easily become super spreaders.”

“The inmates, the guards, and other service providers at MCCC are part of our community, and we cannot forget them as we face this together,” Lowenthal added.

As of Monday, MCCC had 313 inmates. The jail was designed for 209 inmates and has an operating bed capacity of 301, according to statistics from the state Department of Public Safety website.

Spokeswoman Toni Schwartz confirmed Tuesday that there were no positive COVID-19 cases at the Maui jail.

She also addressed concerns about jail staff memos indicating only a five-day isolation for new admissions to MCCC, compared to the more standard two-week isolation, such as for travel.

“All new admissions should be isolated for five days and must be cleared by medical prior to being moved from the ISO (isolation) cells to help prevent spread on COVID-19,” a staff memo obtained by The Maui News said.

Overcrowding at jails and prisons makes it difficult to accommodate the full 14-day intake quarantine, Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda said at a recent news conference.

Schwartz said that the overcrowded conditions are leaving staff at facilities with difficult decisions, including whether or not to trim the intake quarantine period for inmates, who have been in custody up to two weeks and display no symptoms, in order to house new intakes with no health history.

Each prison or jail deals with situations that are unique to that facility, and the administration at those facilities take that into consideration as they execute their plans, she said.

Schwartz said the facilities are within Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state Department of Health guidelines, which say: “To the extent possible, implement routine intake quarantine of new admissions to the facility for 14 days before housed with the existing population.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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