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HCCC In-House Quarantine Has Halted Virtual Court Hearings

By Tiffany DeMasters
June 2, 2021, 7:14 AM HST
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The COVID-19 outbreak at Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center has prosecutors looking at alternative ways for inmates to appear before a judge since the facility has placed all housing under quarantine and stopped all inmate movement within the facility.

Hawai‘i County Prosecutor Kelden Waltjen said inmate transport stopped last week when the first COVID cases were reported on May 24. It’s now been just over a week since HCCC has enacted its facility-wide quarantine measures of all inmate housing and suspending inmate movement going out of and within the facility. As a result, the jail is unable to accommodate virtual court hearings as they are held in one location in the building, requiring inmates to be relocated.

They’re still working the kinks out, but Waltjen said there is discussion of utilizing iPads with a Zoom app, which would allow inmates to appear virtually before a judge without having to be moved within the facility.

“We’re just trying to see what we can do to make accommodations available for court staff,” Waltjen said.

There are currently 77 inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 and nine staff members, bringing the total infection number to 86 as of Tuesday. HCCC is housing approximately 338 inmates, according to the Department of Public Safety’s (PSD) May bi-monthly report. The facility has an operational capacity of 226.

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The outbreak hasn’t stopped newly arrested individuals from being incarcerated at HCCC. PSD Spokesperson Toni Schwartz said their facilities cannot turn away anyone sent to their custody by the courts.

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Prior to the outbreak, Hawai‘i Police Department has been working with the Judiciary, Sheriffs and HCC, to minimize the spread of the virus. Police Chief Paul Ferreira explained detainees at HPD cellblocks are asked specific COVID-related questions, such as recent travel and exposure, at the time they’re being processed.

If they respond yes to any of the questions, Ferreira said the judiciary holds a virtual hearing while the prisoner remains in the cellblock. The detainee is either released or transported directly to HCCC if custody is ordered.

“If anyone displays or acknowledged having symptoms requiring medical attention, they are transported to the Hilo or Kona Medical Center(s) for treatment,” the chief said.

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Third Circuit Court Chief Judge Robert DS Kim expressed his concern regarding the outbreak. He said he has asked the Hawai‘i Supreme Court to suspend Rule 10 within the 3rd Circuit, which would ease the restriction of requiring detainees be brought before a judge 14 days after their case has moved to Circuit Court.

“Quite frankly, it’s pretty serious,” Kim said of the outbreak. “That’s a main cluster you got there, and there’s no social distancing.”

Safety is also a main concern of the judiciary and the prosecutor’s office.

“Our first concern is help security,” Kim said. “We’ve managed to keep COVID out of the courts and the public.”

Deputy Public Defender Ann Datta told Big Island Now the situation at HCCC has been difficult.

“It’s impacted the rights of our clients,” Datta said. “There are cases that would’ve been resolved and people are just sitting in jail.”

Datta’s concern is they’re not getting enough information.

“We’re back to where we were in March of 2020,” she said. “The jail is overcrowded and their liberty is being restrained needlessly.”

Mayor Mitch Roth issued a statement Tuesday in regards to the HCCC outbreak. He asked Hawai‘i Island residents to continue to remain cautious.

“What is happening at HCCC is a very real and stark reminder of how fast the virus can spread in such a short amount of time,” Roth stated. “To best keep our friends, families, and loved ones safe, we would like to encourage our residents to get vaccinated and continue practicing our social distancing measures.”

The Department of Public Safety, the Department of Health, and the county’s Civil Defense Administration are working to stop the spread and will be contacting residents who may be considered close contacts.

“In the meantime, stay safe, remain cautious, and be mindful of those around you,” Roth stated. “We are very close to beating this virus and returning to normalcy, but we must do all we can to prevent ourselves from tripping at the finish line.”

According to PSD, movement suspension and quarantine are in line with PSD’s pandemic plan and were implemented to keep inmates, staff and the public safe. PSD Health Care staff will continue to monitor inmates and will lift the quarantine and movement suspension when they are confident that the outbreak has been contained and there is no further spread inside the facility.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.
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