A one-time incentive award is being offered to Hawaiʻi prisoners who become fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
On Thursday, Oct. 14, the Department of Public Safety (PSD) announced it would offer $50 to inmates to get inoculated. The money would be deposited into their spendable trust account.
The incentive is available to those individuals who were incarcerated after March 3, 2021, and are still in custody.
“PSD is doing everything it can to educate inmates about the vaccine and encourage everyone to get vaccinated,” said Tommy Johnson, PSD Deputy Director for Corrections. “We’ve seen a substantial increase in inmate vaccinations that we believe is a result of our education efforts. It is our hope that inmates who are still on the fence about getting vaccinated will participate.”
Several of the jails and prisons within the state have dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks among their inmate populations. In early August, infection and hospitalization rates surged statewide.
Also in August, Hawaiʻi Community Correctional Center began dealing with a COVID outbreak. As of Thursday, Oct. 14, 272 inmates and 36 employees have recovered from the virus.
HCCC currently has two active cases among staff and one prisoner. The facility remains in quarantine.
Hawaiʻi County Prosecuting Attorney Kelden Waltjen told Big Island Now he is a firm believer in testing individuals at the cellblock before they’re transported to the jail.
“The testing is occurring after someone is taken to intake at HCCC,” Waltjen said. “If we can get testing done earlier, it can put people on notice at an earlier date.”
On Friday, Waltjen said he had conversations with various agencies, including HPD, the Office of the Public Defender and Hawaiʻi County Civil Defense Agency about testing and possibly vaccinations at the cellblock. The discussions are ongoing.
“The vaccinations are important but testing is more so to determine if someone is a positive case,” Waltjen said. “I’m really hoping by having the cooperation and coordination with state and county officials we’ll be able to get this project moving soon.”
As a result of the COVID spike in cases statewide, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court suspended all jury trials until after Nov. 16. This is the second time since the pandemic began that the high court suspended trials in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
“The Hawaiʻi State Judiciary has been steadfast in its support of COVID-19 vaccinations,” Judiciary spokesperson Jan Kagehiro stated to Big Island Now in an email. “The availability of vaccines statewide, combined with other public health measures, have been instrumental in fighting this devasting virus.”
The Judiciary plans to resume jury trials in mid-November if health conditions permit and staff can continue to maintain a safe environment for all concerned.
“While we may need to address a backlog of jury trials, the vast majority of cases have progressed throughout the pandemic through the availability of remote hearings,” Kagehiro stated.
For the past several months, Waltjen said iPads and other devices were utilized for virtual court appearances. While the defense and prosecutors have been able to resolve cases, Waltjen said there are still serious cases awaiting trial.
Inmates were notified of the new incentive this week. With more prisoners vaccinated, PSD hopes it will allow them to get one step closer to resuming normal operations, including transports.
PSD says it will continue to work with the courts on this matter.
Approximately 2,530 inmates, in custody both in Hawaiʻi and Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., already qualify for the incentive payment. Another 137 are pending full vaccination status and approval for the incentive award.
“The primary purpose of this incentive is to keep inmates, staff, and family members safe during this pandemic,” PSD Spokesperson Toni Schwartz told Kauaʻi Now News. “Our hope is that inmates will choose to get vaccinated for their own wellbeing as well as for others around them.”
A point-in-time study released in September showed 56% of HCCC were vaccinated. With news of the incentive released this week, PSD officials are waiting to see how the interest level toward taking the vaccine will change.
“Our hope is that this incentive program will encourage inmates on the fence about getting the vaccine to reconsider and choose to get vaccinated,” Schwartz said.
Waltjen said he thinks inmates will opt to take the incentive.
“If the aim is to get vaccination higher within the facility I think the incentive will accomplish that,” Waltjen said. “I don’t know if that money could’ve been better used somewhere else.”
PSD requested and received approval for $615,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) funds to be specifically used as an incentive initiative for offenders in custody.
This incentive payment is not available to state employees. Schwartz said all state employees, not just PSD, would have to be considered for the award.
The Department of Public Safety (PSD) continues to encourage all staff to voluntarily get tested and receive the COVID-19 vaccination. According to Gov. David Ige’s direction, all state employees are eligible for up to two hours of administrative leave (per dose) to take the COVID-19 vaccine during normal work hours, as operations permit.
For more detailed inmate testing data, PSD’s Pandemic Plan and information on response efforts made to safeguard the inmates, staff and public, visit the dedicated COVID-19 webpage here.