Union: Hawaii prison guards overworked, scared amid outbreak

HONOLULU — A union representing more than 300 employees at Hawaii’s largest prison said the state is not doing enough to combat a coronavirus outbreak at the facility.

Union Public Workers Administrator Liz Ho said Wednesday that employees at the Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu have been working under hazardous conditions and have had to work up to 36-hour shifts because of understaffing, the Honolulu Star Advertiser reported.

“They’re stressed, they’re overwhelmed and they’re scared,” Ho said. “Every day they go to work afraid to contract COVID-19 and bring it home to their families.”

The Department of Public Safety announced a lockdown and other measures to try to control the outbreak, which initially infected three inmates and 10 staffers last week.

But as of Wednesday, the prison reported 177 new confirmed cases among inmates and 33 among employees.

Corrections officers “are afraid,” Ho said. “There’s overcrowding. There are agitated inmates. They’re not happy.”

Union officials said they suggested to Department of Public Safety Director Max Otani this week that more guards be hired to ease understaffing problems and employees be given hazard pay. Otani and his staff said those measures would take too long to ease the outbreak, Ho said.

Otani said he had a productive talks with Union Public Workers.

“They shared our concerns about the situation at Halawa Correctional Facility and gave their support on our plans to help Halawa,” he said. “One of the ideas UPW gave their blessing on was to ask for volunteers from other facilities to come and temporarily assist with staffing.”

Ho said she did not remember providing “a blessing” to Otani’s proposal, only that she listened to his suggestion.

“We just think more can be done,” Ho said. “We believe there should be more action and more of a sense of urgency at Halawa.”

The infections at Halawa are the third major outbreak to occur at a correctional facility in the state since the pandemic began.

The Oahu Community Correctional Center has had 450 inmates test positive for the virus, while the Waiawa Community Correctional Center in Waipahu reported 213 cases among inmates. More than 600 inmates from Hawaii also have tested positive for the virus at a privately owned prison in Arizona.

The true number of infections is likely higher because not everyone is tested and some people can be infected without showing symptoms.

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