Collaborative Efforts Led to Hawaii Having No COVID-19 Cases in Jails and Prisons

By Elpidio R. Estioko

As a frequent visitor of Hawaii, I am happy to learn that the island state has no confirmed COVID-19 cases in jails and prisons despite the surge of cases in these institutions across the United States in recent weeks, even as the overall daily infection rate in the nation has remained relatively flat.

According to an article written by Timothy Williams, Libby Seline and Rebecca Griesbach of Agence France Presse, COVID-19 cases risen sharply in prisons even as they plateau nationwide. 

Based on data raised by The New York Times, “the number of prison inmates known to be infected has doubled during the past month to more than 68,000. Prison deaths tied to the corona virus have also risen, by 73 percent since mid-May. By now, the five largest known clusters of the virus in the United States are not at nursing homes or meatpacking plants, but inside correctional institutions, according to data The New York Times has been collecting about confirmed coronavirus cases since the pandemic reached American shores.”



The surge is really concerning because it was reported that based on interviews with prison and jail officials, they “acknowledged that their approach has largely been based on trial and error, and that an effective, consistent response for U.S. correctional facilities remains elusive. If there was clearly a right strategy, we all would have done it,” said Dr. Owen Murray, a University of Texas Medical Branch physician who oversees correctional health care at dozens of Texas prisons. “There is no clear cut right strategy here. There are a lot of different choices that one could make that are going to be in-the-moment decisions,” he added. 

Why, in the first place, aren’t they testing? Is this costing the local governments money that they are sacrificing the lives of inmates to be positive? Life matters, not money! They need to spend money to be able to contain if not eradicate the spread of the virus and subsequently avoid death. It’s a must that a budget be allocated to this effect!

Initial pronouncements made by public officials have long warned that “the nation’s correctional facilities would most likely become vectors in the pandemic because they are often overcrowded, unsanitary places where social distancing is impractical, bathrooms and day rooms are shared by hundreds of inmates, and access to cleaning supplies is tightly controlled. Many inmates are 60 or older, and many suffer from respiratory illnesses or heart conditions.”

In response, local jails, Hawaii included, have discharged thousands of inmates since February which led to a “substantial reduction” in the jail population across the state of Hawaii, according to the Big Island Video News (BIVN). In a Friday news update, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety said that from March 2 to May 15, the population has been reduced by 802 inmates, from 2,189 on March 2 to 1,382 as of May 15.

With this, Hawaii has joined Wyoming and Idaho with still no identified confirmed cases of sick persons due to COVID-19. 

The police department stated: “These reductions are due to the huge, up-front diversion efforts made by county police departments, PSD’s Intake Services Center Division and the State Judiciary. More recent, additional reductions are due to the collaborative efforts of the state public defender’s office, county prosecutors, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court and the Supreme Court appointed Special Master…”

The DPS website lists these inmate testing protocols: If an inmate shows symptoms of a respiratory illness, PSD Health Care Division’s staff will perform a full evaluation, including testing for COVID-19 and common infectious respiratory illnesses such as Influenza; health care staff conduct onsite specimen collection using the nasopharyngeal swab and submit the specimen to Clinical Labs for testing; Inmates pending testing are immediately placed in medical isolation; and the facilities have longstanding outbreak management plans in place to quickly identify, isolate and treat communicable diseases. They remain vigilant in their efforts to prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19 and that is the reason why Hawaii has no cases of the virus in jails. 

Also, the Hawaii Paroling Authority’s (HPA) suspension of all parole hearings is extended to the end of April. All hearings previously scheduled to take place during this time frame are being rescheduled. All offenders who have already tentatively been granted release on parole will continue to be processed for release pursuant to the individual release requirements established by the parole board during their previous parole hearing.

In communicating the decision for the public to know, signs have been posted outside for parolees and inside for HPA staff with the latest scheduling and office updates. An information hotline was established with recorded updates for the general public and the number is: (808) 253-1642.

PSD identified 52 inmates at the Haleiwa Correctional Facility and five inmates at the Women’s Community Correctional Center who will be completing their full sentence between March 28, 2020 to June 30, 2020. A list has been sent to the Hawaii Paroling Authority (HPA) for its consideration in order to further decongest the prisons.

Since March, The Marshall Project (TMP) is collecting data on COVID-19 infections in state and federal prisons to show the virus has affected correctional facilities where residents live. In a partnership with The Associated Pres, they track people who are sick and killed by COVID-19 in prisons and how widely it has spread across the country and within each state.

By June 15, the TMP reported that “at least 46,249 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, a 5 percent increase from the week before and 30,152 prisoners have recovered. Texas has total cases of 7,467; Federal 6,458; Ohio 4,908; Michigan 3,982; California 3225; Tennessee 3,127; New Jersey 2,655; Arkansas 1,801; Florida 1,692; and Virginia 1, 328.”

Reports said the first known COVID-19 death of a prisoner was in Georgia when Anthony Cheek died on March 26. Cheek, 49, had been held in Lee State Prison near Albany, a hotspot for the disease. Since then, at least 547 other prisoners have died of COVID-19-related causes. By June 16, the total number of deaths had risen by 5% in a week.

Fellow islanders, we are luckier than other states, so let’s continue to support our state officials in pursuing measures to fight the virus in order to avoid any confirmed cases in our prison system!


ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and an award-winning journalist here in the US. For feedbacks, comments… please email the author at estiokoelpidio@gmail.com).

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