More than 5,000 jail and prison inmates who were infected with the coronavirus should get thousands of dollars in compensation, according to a lawsuit alleging that the state correctional system fumbled the response to the pandemic.
The Circuit Court lawsuit filed in Honolulu by the firm of Eric Seitz says the state Department of Public Safety “categorically failed to take reasonable measures to protect the inmate population in its care, custody, and control” from the time of the first Covid-19 outbreak inside in August 2020.
Seitz said he will ask the court to appoint an administrator to process claims by inmates who were infected, and he believes $1,000 to $5,000 payments for prisoners who were infected and became “minimally sick” may be appropriate.
“For people who had symptoms that have lasted for months and years, for those inmates who died, obviously the compensation should be and will be greater,” he said. So far 10 Hawaii inmates have died due to Covid-19 complications.
Even some prisoners who did not become severely ill believed that they would die once Covid-19 got a foothold in the overcrowded facilities because the prisoners had no way to protect themselves, Seitz said.
The lawsuit, which was filed on July 26, alleges inmates had inadequate personal protective equipment, ate in shoulder-to-shoulder dining areas, and some were crowded with dozens of other inmates in open living areas rather than cells. Others were crowded into two-man cells with two or three other prisoners, and there were not enough cleansers or soap.
State facilities also failed to properly test and isolate incoming inmates or properly quarantine prisoners who became ill, which allowed the virus to rage through state facilities, according to the lawsuit.
The department has a very detailed Pandemic Response Plan, but a federal court judge ruled last year that the state failed to follow that plan. U.S. District Court Judge Jill Otake ruled on July 13, 2021, the state’s actions during the pandemic “demonstrate objective deliberate indifference,” and she ordered the state to finally follow its own response plan.
The state still struggles to keep the virus out of its correctional facilities, and the Oahu Community Correctional Center had 102 active cases as of July 26.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of current or former inmates Michelle Acosta-Canon, who was held at the Women’s Community Correctional Center; Alan McCabe, a cancer survivor who was jailed in the Kauai Community Correctional Center; Isaiah Kaisa, who was held at Halawa Correctional Facility; and Matthew Williams, who was imprisoned at Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona.
Seitz said he will ask the court to certify the case as a class-action lawsuit.
“People who are in prison don’t have the ability to protest themselves. They are in a controlled environment in which the prison administration is required to provide some measure of protection for them,” Seitz said.
“In this case, unfortunately the prison administration not only did not provide that minimum level of protection, they exposed them to enhanced and increased risks, which is why Covid spread so quickly through the prisons,” he said.
Seitz said earlier this year he tried to persuade the state Attorney General’s office to establish an orderly claims process to compensate inmates who were infected, but the state refused to discuss that possibility.
Gary H. Yamashiroya, special assistant to the state Attorney General, said in a written statement that “we are not commenting on potential litigation, particularly regarding statements made in confidential settlement discussions, which would be a violation of court rules.”
Gov. David Ige’s administration introduced a bill during the last session of the Legislature to shield the state from liability for actions it took or failed to take in connection with the pandemic, but that bill died.