The warden of a privately run Arizona prison that is experiencing a major outbreak of COVID-19 among its inmates assured Hawaii corrections officials in May that the facility had “robust” precautions in place to guard against the spread of the disease.

Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, houses 1,125 Hawaii prisoners as well as 99 inmates from Nevada, and last week the Hawaii Department of Public Safety disclosed that 69 of the Nevada inmates — or more than two-thirds of the Nevada population at Saguaro — have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Hawaii prison officials say no Hawaii inmates have tested positive as yet, but 80 prisoners from Hawaii have been placed in quarantine as a precaution. Another 120 inmates at Saguaro are from Kansas.

Saguaro Correctional Facility. People walking around inside of fences. Eloy, Arizona 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Saguaro Correctional Facility in Eloy, Arizona, is currently housing prisoners from other states. More than two-thirds of the Nevada inmates being held there have tested positive for COVID-19.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Saguaro officials disclosed in late May that two staff members at the prison had tested positive for COVID-19, but told Hawaii officials that neither of the staff members had “significant contact” with inmates, and no inmates had tested positive at that time.

Saguaro Warden Martin Frink wrote in a letter to Hawaii prison officials that the convicts from different states “are housed in separate pods, except in special circumstances such a(s) restricted housing units where the different jurisdictions of inmates do not intermix.”

But Hawaii prison officials announced Friday that of the 80 Hawaii prisoners who may be at risk for infection, contact tracing suggested that 28 may have had contact with Nevada prisoners, according to information released by the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.

The 28 Hawaii inmates have been relocated to vacant housing, where they will be monitored for symptoms for 14 days, according to Hawaii prison officials. Another 47 Hawaii inmates who are being housed in a restrictive housing unit with prisoners from other jurisdictions are also being monitored for symptoms for 14 days.

Another five Hawaii inmates are being housed in the medical unit for routine medical appointments unrelated to the precautionary monitoring. Hawaii inmates in the general population of the prison have not been affected, and none are exhibiting signs of any respiratory illnesses, according to Hawaii prison officials.

When asked whether contact tracing revealed what the source of the Nevada inmate infections may have been, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz on Monday referred that question to the Nevada Department of Corrections.

Amanda Gilchrist, director of public affairs for prison operator CoreCivic, said Monday that “questions regarding inmate cases at Saguaro Correctional Center, COVID-19 testing and quarantine should be directed to our government partner. We also encourage you to reach out to our partners for information regarding inmate transfers/movement.”

Scott Kelley, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Corrections, said Tuesday via email the department “does not know how COVID-19 reached our offenders inside Saguaro CC. As you know, COVID-19 has an incubation period of 2-14 days, making tracing very difficult.”

“Our priority right now is to work with CoreCivic to monitor, assess, and treat Nevada offenders in their custody. This will include NDOC providing Saguaro staff with test kits so they can test our offenders every 21 days until all test negative for the virus,” Kelley said in a written statement.

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

“No offenders housed at Saguaro have been hospitalized for COVID-19 related illness, nor has there been any deaths,” Gilchrist said in a written statement in response to questions Monday.

Gilchrist said all “social visitation” at the prison was suspended on March 18, and there have been no new transfers of inmates into Saguaro since March.

“Thus, the population is static which decreases the population’s exposure to COVID-19,” Frink said in his May letter to prison officials.

Inmates who leave the facility to go to the hospital are held in isolation for 14 days and undergo daily temperature checks before they are allowed to return to the general population, Frink said.

Gilchrist said all employees are also screened before they enter the facility.

Saguaro Correctional Center Eloy Arizona sign, entrance into parking lot.

Although inmates from different states are housed separately, 80 Hawaii prisoners have been placed in quarantine as a precaution.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Frink told Hawaii officials in a May 28 letter that surgical masks were distributed to inmates on April 17, and cloth masks were distributed to prisoners on about May 10. He said corrections staff are required to wear masks at work.

But Frink also acknowledged the prison would hold an inmate basketball tournament in late May for general population inmates, explaining that since “other programming/activities have been restricted because of COVID-19, it was reasonable under the circumstances to afford the inmate population an alternative opportunity for enjoyment and physical activity.”

Hawaii Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda said in a statement Friday that Saguaro prison officials “assure us they are proactively taking all necessary precautions to mitigate any potential spread of the virus inside their facility, to include continual, enhanced screening of anyone entering the facility, and monitoring inmates and staff for signs and symptoms due to possible exposure.”

Ken Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, has urged the state to test all inmates and staff at Saguaro whether or not they are showing symptoms, but Schwartz said in a written statement that is not part of the current plan.

“The current protocol for the testing of inmates continues to follow the national standards and guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH),” she said in response to questions. “Based on those guidelines, precautionary testing is being conducted for the 28 inmates who may have had contact with Nevada inmates who tested positive at Saguaro. Results are pending.”

Nevada prison officials discovered the infections at Saguaro after testing each of the 99 inmates the state is holding there as part of a larger initiative to test nearly all inmates in the state prison system.

The tests at Saguaro were conducted July 8, and the results were returned on July 14 and 15. At the time of the testing, none of the Saguaro inmates showed any symptoms of the coronavirus, according to Nevada’s prison medical director.

The next round of testing of the Nevada inmates is scheduled for July 28.

Before you go . . .

Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.

The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.

Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.

About the Author