Settlement sets up panel for Hawaii prisons during pandemic

HONOLULU — A U.S. judge has given preliminary approval to a settlement in a lawsuit by Hawaii inmates who allege state officials mishandled the pandemic and failed to protect them from COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails.

In a ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge Jill Otake said the settlement between the state and the inmates is “fair, adequate, and reasonable.”

Both sides agreed last week to the settlement, which establishes a five-person panel to oversee public health in correctional facilities and other measures to improve sanitation, hygiene and medical monitoring.

The settlement also directs officials to make vaccines available and to “promote and educate inmates and staff regarding COVID-19 vaccination.”

The class-action lawsuit was meant to provide resources to improve safety during the pandemic, said Eric Seitz, an attorney for the inmates. He said Friday he’ll pursue damages in separate, future legal action.

Situations described in court documents included ailing detainees kept near a bathroom flooded with urine and feces. Their requests to use the bathroom were frequently denied, forcing them to urinate in their drinking cups, according to the documents.

Class members can object to the settlement terms. A hearing is scheduled next month to determine if any objections have merit.

The inmates had asked for a court-appointed expert who could ensure the state was following its own Pandemic Response Plan. In July, Otake ruled that she wouldn’t appoint a special master but said she was troubled by “egregious conditions” that led to virus outbreaks at five of the state’s eight prisons and jails.

Otake noted descriptions in the lawsuit including an outbreak at one Oahu facility that led to 90% of the inmate population contracting the virus. Dirty clothes from that facility where laundered by inmates and staff at another facility, which resulted in an outbreak there.

Other descriptions she noted include an inmate with lupus who contracted the virus but received little to no medical care and ended up with serious kidney damage. Inmates described a lack of social distancing and mask-wearing enforcement amid crowded and unsanitary living conditions.

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