Federal Supreme Court case: Law enforcement officials botched COVID-19 response in prisons


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Law enforcement officials botched the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Hawaii’s prisons and jails so badly that the state violated inmates’ constitutional rights, inmate attorneys told a federal judge Thursday.

The lawsuit filed in June indicates that major COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in six correctional facilities with Hawaiian inmates and approximately half of the state’s inmate population is infected. Overall, the Ministry of Public Security reports that 2,188 inmates have been infected with the coronavirus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The department reports that nine inmates have died from the respiratory disease, and at least two more had the disease when they died. Autopsies performed in Arizona on these two cases concluded that the prisoners died from health conditions such as obesity and diabetes, rather than from COVID-19.

Lawyers for a group of Hawaiian prisoners say Hawaiian prison inmates are 16 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than people in the general population. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2019

The lawsuit alleges government corrections officials “failed to implement most, if not all, of the precautions public health experts have taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in DPS prisons”.

Attorney Gina May Szeto-Wong, who represented the case on behalf of the inmates, quoted a New York Times article Hawaii inmates are almost 16 times more likely to contract the coronavirus than other residents of the islands.

Prison officials knowingly and recklessly exposed inmates to a highly contagious, potentially fatal virus, which violated inmates’ constitutional rights, Szeto-Wong said.

She also claimed the department had “misrepresented the public that it was in control when the truth was much worse”.

State Corrections officials deny this, saying in legal briefs that despite issues such as overcrowded prisons and many inmates who have refused to be vaccinated, the department has been “proactive and vigilant” in responding to the pandemic.

Last month, correctional officials announced that more than half of all inmates detained on June 21 had been vaccinated, although that percentage changes daily as people enter and exit the system. By the same date, an additional 1,126 inmates had rejected the vaccine.

Jill Otake, US District Court judge, asked Szeto-Wong shortly before the hearing began how information about inmates who refused to be vaccinated would affect the judge’s deliberations on the case.

State prison officials say they do what they can, Otake said, “but they have a significant portion of the inmate population who disagree with vaccination, so it almost feels like this isn’t really … a problem, that they have so much control. “

Szeto-Wong responded that vaccines are not mandatory and that public health officials across the country are facing the same problem. “DPS also needs to address the fact that individuals have the right to be vaccinated or to choose not to be vaccinated,” she said.

Deputy Attorney General Skyler Cruz said the critical question in the case is whether the correction system responded properly to the threat posed by the pandemic, and “as a department, I think this is undisputed”.

For example, he said the department has been a long one Pandemic Response Plan last year, which called for testing, quarantining of new entrants to prisons and jails, the use of protective gear, and a number of other steps to prevent the disease from spreading.

Otake interrupted Cruz at this point to ask if the department’s pandemic response plan is actually being enforced at the facilities.

Jill A. Otake, a U.S. district court judge, says she will make a decision soon. Tracy Wright Corvo

She cited statements submitted in the case, such as a report from a prisoner who claimed he was transferred from the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo to the Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu without a test last month despite suffering from symptoms of COVID-19.

“What motive do these inmates have to invent?” asked Otake. “They are not looking for release, they are not looking for money, so tell me what your motive is” for lying.

Cruz said he did not know, but cited testimony from state correctional facility guards describing a variety of steps taken to protect staff and inmates from infection. He said the pandemic response plan “is being implemented and working”.

But Otake challenged him on that point too, asking how the state can claim that the response plan works when 40 inmates were regularly housed in a single room at the HCCC known as the Fishbowl and Hilo Prison in May The outbreak had resulted in infections of 249 inmates.

Cruz replied that HCCC had no infections in the year leading up to the May outbreak, but once the virus gets into a facility it spreads quickly.

The lawsuit alleges that inmates could be harmed from exposure to the COVID-19 virus, but Cruz argued that for the thousands of inmates who have already been infected or have been vaccinated, “there is little to no risk to get infected with the virus ”. .

The files in the case describe particularly ugly conditions in Hilo Prison, which allegedly contributed to the spread of the virus there.

Documents in the case also claim that some inmates were used in chain link enclosures resembling dog houses, while others were detained in areas without adequate drinking water or toilets. Prisoners “often urinate in their drinking cups or defecate in their ‘cells'”, according to the lawsuit.

Cruz said the Otake inmates are being held in the chain link areas for four hours or less while they are being brought into the facility, and said the prison has stopped using the fishbowl to house inmates.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 11 inmates held at various facilities, and the inmates’ lawyers are seeking to classify the case as a class action lawsuit. The lawsuit asks the court to appoint a public health expert or “master” to oversee the corrective system’s efforts to control the spread of the virus.

Otake took the case under consideration and said she would make a decision soon.

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