Hawaii’s jail and prison oversight commission is demanding an investigation by the Department of Public Safety into an attorney’s claim that more than a dozen correctional staff at the Arizona private prison housing Hawaii inmates have COVID-19.

CoreCivic, the prison’s operator, said that two staff members have been confirmed to have COVID-19 at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, where more than 1,100 Hawaii inmates are housed under an agreement with the Department of Public Safety.

Amanda Gilchrist, a CoreCivic spokeswoman, said the two Saguaro staff members have both completed a 14-day self-isolation and were medically cleared to come back to work.

In a May 13 letter to Hawaii Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda, the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission laid out a number of other allegations made by the Nevada attorney whose client is housed at Saguaro, including that guards only recently began wearing masks and that social distancing is not being practiced.

Those reports — relayed to the oversight commission by a local group of advocates concerned with Saguaro’s handling of the pandemic — called for “immediate attention and response,” the letter said.

Other allegations include that two pods are under complete lockdown, strip-searches are being conducted without personal protective equipment and a basketball tournament is being held despite social distancing requirements.

Saguaro Correctional Facility. People walking around inside of fences. Eloy, Arizona 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The correctional oversight commission is demanding answers from the public safety department about Saguaro Correctional Center’s handling of the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Nick Shook, the Nevada attorney whose reports the commission is citing, said it was alarming that basic safety protocols have not been followed.

“It’s kind of tough in a prison environment,” he said.

But steps can be taken to help ensure the safety of inmates and staff, he said, including providing hand sanitizers and face masks.

“If you start with those basics, those are things you could do today,” Shook said.

Meanwhile, Arizona continues to have a high number of new cases. On May 17, there were 306 new cases statewide and 15 in Pinal County, where Saguaro is located. The La Palma Correctional Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility also run by CoreCivic, had 56 COVID-19 cases as of last Tuesday.

Saguaro remains at maximum capacity, while other Hawaii correctional facilities have reduced populations as part of a collaborative effort to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 transmission and spread.

The Hawaii prisons oversight commission gave the public safety department until May 22 to respond. The department would not comment on the issue.

Gilchrist, the CoreCivic spokeswoman, said the prison has its own Coronavirus Medical Action Plan, separate from the Hawaii public safety department’s pandemic response plan.

“We have responded to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the safety and well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities,” she said.

Regarding personal protective equipment, Gilchrist said “face masks will be provided to all staff and those in our care,” consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

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