Story updated at 9:25 a.m., 11/19/20

The COVID-19 outbreak among Hawaii inmates serving time in a privately operated Arizona prison has grown into the largest infection cluster in the Hawaii correctional system, and the newly appointed chairman of the state House committee that oversees prisons wants to know why.

Last month, acting Public Safety Director Fred Hyun announced that Todd Thomas, a top administrator for prison operator CoreCivic, had taken control of the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona.

“He has assured us he has everything under control,” Hyun said. “I have complete faith in Todd.”

Hyun added that he has visited Saguaro, “and they do have the capabilities and the real estate to isolate” any inmates who are infected with COVID-19.

Hyun made those remarks on Oct. 15, when CoreCivic had identified just seven Hawaii inmates with the coronavirus. In the weeks that followed, mass testing at Saguaro identified a total of 532 Hawaii prisoners with COVID-19, and three Hawaii inmates are now hospitalized with the disease.

Saguaro Correctional Facility. People walking around inside of fences. Eloy, Arizona 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Saguaro Correctional Center, where inmates from Hawaii, Nevada, Idaho and Kansas have tested positive for COVID-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

An Idaho inmate who was housed at Saguaro died at an Arizona hospital on Oct. 17 after becoming infected, and Hawaii corrections officials announced Thursday morning that a Hawaii inmate who had the virus died on Tuesday at an Arizona hospital.

The Hawaii prisoner was not identified, but he was between 60 and 69 years old with underlying conditions, according to the Department of Public Safety. He was admitted to the hospital Oct. 19 for “treatment of a medical condition.” That death marks the first time a Hawaii prisoner with COVID-19 has died anywhere in the state correctional system.

A spokeswoman for CoreCivic reported this week that 52 members of the prison staff have also tested positive for the virus. Of those employees, 45 prison workers have recovered, she said.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 inside the facility has prompted a lockdown of more than half of the Hawaii inmates and caused a near-panic among family members of some Hawaii inmates at Saguaro.

One woman whose middle-aged son is serving a sentence at Saguaro said in an email to Civil Beat, “Isn’t anyone going to do anything about this? Isn’t this story interesting enough to make the news? Isn’t there any agency that oversees SCC, a private prison that is not providing adequate care of its prisoners?”

Inmates from Nevada, Idaho and Kansas are also housed at Saguaro, but prisoners from different states are not supposed to mix. However, the mother of the Hawaii inmate said in an interview that her son described standing in lines of 60 or more inmates twice before the lockdown — on Oct. 3 and again about a week later — with the prisoners crowded together waiting for medication.

The inmates around him were coughing into their shirt collars, and were wearing different colored uniforms, an indication that they come from different states, she said. Both her son and his cellmate later tested positive for the coronavirus, she said. The mother of the inmate asked that she not be identified because she is afraid her son may be punished if she speaks out publicly.

The son and his cellmate are now quarantined, and he told his mother the inmates in his portion of the prison were being fed only two meals a day for much of the past week during the lockdown. On Wednesday, he reported to his mother the prison rations had been increased to three boxed meals per day.

Inmates in quarantine are allowed out of their cells for 20 minutes every other day to shower or make phone calls, she said, and near the end of October her son reported he and other prisoners had not been allowed outside for recreation “for weeks.”

Some prisoners ran out of their medications in late October and early November, she said, and “the men are protesting by taping their empty pill packs to the windows.” She was told the regular distribution of medications later resumed.

Amanda Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for CoreCivic, denied that inmates from multiple states were allowed to mix in a pill line, and said medication for inmates in quarantine is brought to the prisoners in their cells. For non-quarantined populations, “pill call is conducted outside and there is ample space for social distancing,” she said in a written response to questions.

She also said the inmates are fed three meals per day, and inmates in quarantine are allowed 20 minutes per day out of their cells, two cells at a time. “During quarantine, recreation has been suspended to limit movement within the facility and reduce exposure,” she said.

Saguaro Correctional Center Eloy Arizona sign, entrance into parking lot.
At least 532 Hawaii inmates at Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, have contracted COVID-19. Four remain hospitalized. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

CoreCivic follows the guidance of the states that are holding inmates at Saguaro as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gilchrist said.

“We have worked closely together with them to respond to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities,” she said in a written statement.

Hyun declined to be interviewed, but said in a written statement that officials at Saguaro “have assured us they immediately enacted the facility’s isolation and quarantine protocol upon receiving the test results.”

“Saguaro assures PSD they are following CDC guidelines for testing, isolation and quarantine of incarcerated individuals, and continue to implement stringent sanitation and hygiene measures to limit potential exposure and prevent the spread of coronavirus to inmates and staff,” Hyun said in his statement.

The increase in COVID-19 cases among Hawaii inmates prompted the Department of Public Safety to launch mass testing “to identify hotspots and mitigate spread,” according to Hyun’s statement. “As a result of Saguaro’s quick implementation of their isolation/quarantine protocols and mass testing, they were able to rapidly contain the outbreak.”

Hyun said re-testing of all inmates who have already tested negative “will continue until there are no positives.” Hawaii prison officials report that 393 of the prisoners who tested positive have recovered, while 138 COVID-19 cases among Hawaii inmates at Saguaro are still active.

State Rep. Takashi Ohno, who was recently named chairman of the House Committee on Corrections, Military and Veterans Affairs, said the spread of the virus in Saguaro raises concerns. He said there is a sense among some lawmakers that Hawaii should hold off on any plan to send additional inmates to Arizona “until they can get their issues settled.”

“It’s unfortunate, and I think it’s a failing of the private prison in Arizona,” Ohno said. “I do think there’s going to be a pause, and there has been some reconsideration of sending more folks there.”

Hawaii now holds 1,081 prisoners at Saguaro because there is no room for them in Hawaii prisons. The state periodically rotates new inmates into Saguaro, and recalls other prisoners from Arizona as they approach their parole dates. Ohno said the thinking among some lawmakers is the state may delay any additional inmate movements to Saguaro for a time.

“We’re certainly going to be looking into the performance of those private prisons. We’ll take a hard look at some of the contracts we have in light of COVID — what they’ve done, or how they’ve come up short in their work,” he said.

Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said Hawaii spent $36.2 million last fiscal year to house the Hawaii inmates at Saguaro, and the state is paying for the COVID-19 testing of the prisoners with federal funds provided under the CARES Act.

The tests cost $85 each, which means Hawaii has spent upwards of $150,000 testing inmates at Saguaro.

Ohno said state lawmakers have also discussed making an emergency appropriation early in the 2021 legislative session to be sure the prison system has enough money for testing, personal protective equipment and other costs associated with the pandemic. Much of the federal funding from the CARES Act expires at the end of the year.

Hawaii officials do not know how the disease entered the 1,896-bed Saguaro facility, according to Schwartz, but Hyun told the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission on Oct. 15 that “one guard tested (positive), and (Thomas) started activating the troops, and then we got another inmate positive, and it started from there.”

Nevada Is Pulling Its Prisoners From Saguaro

The other states that house inmates at Saguaro have also had to cope with COVID-19 infections among the prisoners.

Last summer Nevada was holding 99 inmates at Saguaro, and testing in July revealed that 69 of those prisoners had COVID-19. A spokesman for the Nevada Department of Corrections said in a statement Wednesday that Nevada began moving its inmates out of Saguaro on Nov. 2, and plans to return all of them to in-state facilities by Thanksgiving Day.

Hawaii spent $36.2 million last fiscal year to house inmates at Saguaro, a private prison in the Arizona desert about 70 miles southwest of Phoenix. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

CoreCivic also signed a contract with Idaho earlier this year, and that state began transferring inmates from a Texas prison to Saguaro on Aug. 18. Idaho was holding 438 prisoners at Saguaro on Sept. 1 when Idaho officials announced that 11 of their inmates at Saguaro had tested positive for COVID-19.

By Sept. 16, 124 Idaho prisoners at Saguaro had tested positive, and as of Nov. 13, a total of 130 had tested positive.

Kansas is now holding 118 prisoners at Saguaro, and a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections said four inmates from that state tested positive for COVID-19 last week. Those were the first cases among the Kansas population at Saguaro, but a fifth prisoner has also tested positive since then, according to the spokesman.

Up to this point, in-state Hawaii prisons generally have fared better than Saguaro at limiting the spread of the virus, which may be because Hawaii has had some of the lowest numbers of COVID-19 cases per capita in the nation throughout the pandemic.

There has been just one COVID-19 infection to date among the inmates at Halawa Correctional Facility, which is the largest prison in Hawaii. Kulani Correctional Facility and the Women’s Community Correctional Center have had no inmate cases so far, but prison officials announced Wednesday that testing revealed eight cases among the inmates at Waiawa Correctional Facility.

The worst outbreak in a Hawaii correctional facility was at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, which has had 419 cases so far.

OCCC is a jail that holds pretrial inmates and prisoners who are sentenced to relatively short terms of incarceration. Jails have much higher turnover among the inmates than prisons, which provides more opportunities for new arrivals who are infected to spread the virus among the jail population.

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