Mass testing of Hawaii convicts who are serving their sentences in a privately run Arizona prison has identified 317 new cases of COVID-19, according to a written announcement from the state Department of Public Safety on Monday.

That brings the total number of cases among Hawaii inmates at Saguaro Correctional Center to 378, and six inmates have been hospitalized, according to the announcement by Hawaii correctional officials. Another 73 inmate tests are still pending.

A total of 1,081 Hawaii convicts are being housed at Saguaro because there is no room for them in Hawaii prisons.

By comparison, the COVID-19 outbreak at the Oahu Community Correctional Center — which is the largest cluster of infections so far in Hawaii — involved 416 inmates and 99 staff who have tested positive to date.

OCCC housed 873 inmates as of Monday.

Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, also announced Friday that a 61-year-old Hawaii inmate died at the Saguaro Correctional Center, but did not identify the inmate. She said the convict was not among those who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Schwartz said in a written statement that the inmate was found unresponsive in his bed at about 10 a.m. Thursday, and was pronounced dead at the prison at 10:17 a.m. The official cause of death for the inmate is pending a review by the medical examiner.

Eloy police, where the facility is located, were notified in keeping with normal procedures, and the facility will conduct an internal investigation, Schwartz said in the statement.

Mahealani Meheula with mom, left, Viviana 'Tutu' Meheula and Harold Meheula head into Saguaro Correctional Facility. 5 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Saguaro Correctional Center, where 378 Hawaii prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19. Additional tests of inmates are still pending. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

The private prison is operated by CoreCivic, which first announced in July that it had experienced a major COVID-19 outbreak among Nevada inmates that were being housed at the facility.

Lawyers and other inmate advocates urged Hawaii prison officials to step up testing at Saguaro in the months that followed, and CoreCivic reported in October that a staffer at Saguaro had tested positive.

Prison officials then discovered the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in a Hawaii inmate days later.

CoreCivic also confirmed that an Idaho inmate from Saguaro who was infected with the coronavirus died at a local hospital on Oct. 17, and the Hawaii Department of Public Safety announced on Oct. 26 there would be mass testing of all Hawaii inmates at the prison.

Carrie Ann Shirota, a Hawaii lawyer who has clients who are serving their sentences at Saguaro, questioned how the virus could have spread through different populations at different times at Saguaro this year if CoreCivic is following the guidance of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We cannot keep relying on — quote — ‘the word’ of CoreCivic that they are complying with all CDC protocol, because this is a classic example that protocol is not being adhered to,” she said of the latest test results. “I mean, if there are this many people who are positive, there are clearly gaps in protocol being practiced at Saguaro.”

Fred Hyun, acting director of the Department of Public Safety, said in a written statement that Saguaro has adequate space in the prison for isolation and quarantine, and all positive offenders have been medically isolated.

“The Department of Public Safety is in constant communication with the Saguaro facility administration,” said Hyun. “They have assured us they immediately enacted the facility’s isolation and quarantine protocol upon receiving the test results.”

“Saguaro staff will continue to monitor the negative inmates for any symptoms,” Hyun said in his statement.

Apart from the monitoring and testing, the Saguaro staff assured Hawaii prison officials the facility will “continue to implement stringent sanitation and hygiene measures to limit potential exposure and mitigate the spread of coronavirus to inmates and staff,” according to the statement from the department.

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