As efforts continue to reduce the inmate population in Hawaii’s correctional facilities to mitigate COVID-19 risks, one facility has been largely absent from the conversation — the off-islands prison, Saguaro Correctional Center.

More than 1,200 Hawaii inmates are housed at the Eloy, Arizona, facility under a contract with Tennessee-based private prison operator CoreCivic, and the latest count shows that it’s maxed out. Attempts to reduce populations have focused on facilities in the islands, which have reduced population counts by more than 600 people since March 2.

“No one ever brought up Saguaro,” said Mindy Roman, whose fiance is incarcerated there.

Families and friends are left to worry about what’s going to happen to their loved ones. Some are hearing that proper pandemic protocols are not being followed, which CoreCivic denies.

Roman said she was told guards are not wearing personal protective equipment and there is no social distancing, while new people continue to arrive from the outside. The only changes, she said, were some flyers encouraging better hygiene and an extra bar of soap per week.

Saguaro Correctional Facility, Eloy, Arizona with workers. Not quite sure if these are prisoners or security personnel. 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Saguaro Correctional Center, in Eloy, Arizona, is a privately operated prison that houses inmates from Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Arizona has almost 10 times the number of cases of COVID-19 as Hawaii. As of Sunday afternoon, there were nearly 5,000 cases statewide and 247 cases in Pinal County, where Saguaro is located.

Amanda Gilchrist, a CoreCivic spokesperson, did not respond directly to specific allegations from inmates and their family members, but provided CoreCivic’s medical action plan, which has been in place since January.

The plan says face masks “will be provided to all staff and those in our care” and that disposable gloves are “readily available for staff conducting searches and handling property.” It also says staff “routinely encourage appropriate social distancing and model that behavior.”

“CoreCivic is working hard to protect our employees, those entrusted to our care, and our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said in an email.

Toni Schwartz, a public safety spokeswoman, said releasing Saguaro inmates is up to the courts and the paroling authority.

“PSD has no plans to return inmates from Saguaro solely due to the COVID crisis,” she said. But the department will continue to follow release orders, she added.

CCA Arizona Saguaro Correctional Center Hawaii2. 5 march 2016
The public safety department says it has no plans to bring Saguaro inmates home because of COVID-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Meanwhile, the Hawaii Paroling Authority has suspended its hearings until the end of this month because of the pandemic. Fred Hyun, its chairman, said the board will hold special hearings for early releases starting in May.

Hawaii State Public Defender James Tabe, whose office filed petitions with the state Supreme Court seeking court action on inmate releases, said public defenders are looking into bringing Saguaro inmates home, especially those who are medically vulnerable or close to finishing their sentences.

Not a lot of information is being provided about Saguaro Correctional Center, said Kat Brady, coordinator of Community Alliance on Prisons, which advocates for Hawaii prisoners.

“They’re our people,” she said. “They’re our responsibility. This is the problem when we send people far away from everything they know.”

The state should send someone to Arizona immediately to assess the risks, write a report and cut off the funding if proper protocols are not being followed, Brady said.

The uncertainty, in the meantime, has family members worried for their loved ones’ safety at Saguaro.

“I’m not sure if Hawaii is keeping a pulse on these private prisons, on what their protocols are,” Jamee Mahealani Miller, whose son is incarcerated at Saguaro, said during a web panel hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii last week.

She said her son told her the inmates were not being told much except to wash their hands more.

Empty prison structures lined up at the rear of the Saguaro Correctional Facility, Eloy, Arizona. 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Parole hearings have been postponed until May. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I’m just really terrified that it could spread within there,” she said.

Another source of anxiety for Miller has been that Saguaro also contracts with other states — Kansas and Nevada — that continue to send inmates.

But Miller said she’s been careful about voicing her concerns because she is fearful of retaliation against her son in prison. “It’s been really tough trying to figure out what we can do,” she said.

Roman’s fiance was scheduled to have a parole hearing on March 27, but it got canceled because of the pandemic, she said. So he’s anxiously waiting to hear it will be rescheduled so he can come home.

“He’s just trying to stay away from everyone,” she said. “It’s just hard. They’re all just trying in there.”

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