Weeks of quarantine and lockdowns have failed to stop the spread of COVID-19 in a privately run Arizona prison where more than 1,000 Hawaii inmates are being held, and authorities acknowledged that three Hawaii prisoners who died there this fall tested positive for the respiratory disease.

New details surfaced last week about Hawaii inmates Edison Legaspi, 61, and Fiatau Mika, 64, who both died at Saguaro Correctional Center. Mika was found unresponsive in his cell on Oct. 20, and Legaspi was found dead in his bunk on Oct. 29.

Hawaii correctional officials said last month that the prison never tested Legaspi for COVID-19, but a recently released autopsy report confirmed that a posthumous test at the Pinal County Medical Examiner’s Office showed that Legaspi had COVID-19.

The autopsy report for Mika showed he also tested positive for the coronavirus after his death, and the report from the Pinal medical examiner indicates he was housed “in a section of the prison that was used as a COVID-19 unit.”

Mahealani Meheula with mom, left, Viviana 'Tutu' Meheula and Harold Meheula head into Saguaro Correctional Facility. 5 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Authorities now acknowledge that four inmates, including one from Idaho, who died at Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, this fall had tested positive for COVID-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

However, the medical examiner opined in both cases COVID-19 was not a cause of the deaths, citing the fact that both inmates had pre-existing conditions that included diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

Two other Saguaro inmates with COVID-19 have died, including one from Idaho on Oct. 17 and another previously announced patient from Hawaii who died at an Arizona hospital on Nov. 17 after testing positive.

Hawaii officials described that as “the first death of a Hawaii inmate identified in medical examiner’s reports as a COVID-19-related death.” That male inmate, who has not been identified, was between 60 and 69 years old with underlying medical conditions, according to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.

The Eloy, Arizona, prison has become the epicenter of the largest infection cluster in the Hawaii correctional system. Authorities began mass testing and implemented widespread lockdowns within the facility in mid-October to try to limit the spread of the respiratory disease.

However, the latest testing results released by the DPS show that of the 1,079 Hawaii inmates at Saguaro, 609 have been infected with the coronavirus since the first Hawaii case was announced there on Oct. 9.

Statistics posted online by the DPS show that there are only six remaining active positive cases of COVID-19, while 603 inmates have recovered. Four remain in the hospital, and 468 in quarantine.

Legaspi, who was serving a prison term for kidnapping in a domestic abuse case, suffered from diabetes, hypertension and obesity, conditions that increase the health risks for people with COVID-19. However, the medical examiner said COVID-19 did not contribute to his death because Legaspi had no fever or other symptoms during prison screenings on Oct. 18 and Oct. 22, a week before he died.

Mika was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder for the killing of inmate Milton Nihipali at the Oahu Community Correctional Center in 1980. The medical examiner opined that Mika died of diabetes and heart disease, and noted that he did not report any symptoms of COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has created extraordinary challenges for every corrections system in America – public and private.” — CoreCivic spokesman Steve Owen

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is also a physician, reviewed the autopsy reports Sunday and did not disagree with the findings. He noted that both men were in poor health and had “many risk factors for death at a younger-than-average age.”

Legaspi complained of chest pains the night before he died, which “suggests his heart was beginning to give out. This is very common with people who were methamphetamine users,” Green said in a written statement.

“There is no easy way to say definitively that neither man’s COVID positive status contributed to their deaths,” Green said. “However both were in very poor health in general for people in their early 60s and were high risk for early death as compared to another man of similar age but without comorbidities.”

COVID-19 has also spread among inmates from other states who have been housed at Saguaro, including Idaho, Kansas and Nevada. The prison is operated by the private prison company CoreCivic for states that have run out of room in their own prisons.

The number of cases among the Kansas inmates in particular has been rapidly escalating in recent weeks. Kansas holds 118 inmates there, and corrections officials report the number of cases grew from five on Nov. 19 to 85 last week.

CoreCivic spokesman Steve Owen said 50 staff members at Saguaro have also tested positive for COVID-19, but 48 have recovered and returned to work.

“COVID-19 has created extraordinary challenges for every corrections system in America – public and private,” he said in a statement defending the prison’s efforts.

“The health and safety of the individuals entrusted to our care and our staff is the top priority for CoreCivic. We have worked closely with our government partners and state health officials to respond to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities,” Owen said.

He also said that Saguaro and other CoreCivic facilities “have rigorously followed the evolving guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners … and we’re continuing to work closely with our government partners to enhance procedures as needed.”

Saguaro Outbreak Has Grown

The infection cluster among the Hawaii inmates at Saguaro has grown larger than the outbreak at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, where 448 inmates had tested positive as of Saturday. The OCCC outbreak is the largest COVID-19 cluster to date in Hawaii.

Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety said Saguaro officials have assured state officials that they are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for testing, isolation and quarantine, and “continue to implement stringent sanitation and hygiene measures to limit potential exposure and prevent the spread of coronavirus to inmates and staff.”

“Based on continuous discussion with CoreCivic, re-testing of all negative cases will continue until there are no positives,” according to the statement from Hawaii prison officials.

Family members of inmates, meanwhile, describe quarantine lockdowns at Saguaro in which prisoners are confined to their cells for all but 20 minutes a day, then released from their cells in groups for hurried showers and brief phone calls home.

Lillian Harwood-Ah Sing, the wife of 61-year-old Saguaro inmate Cedric “Sookie” Ah Sing, said her husband describes a schedule where inmates are only allowed out of their cells for 20 minutes every other day, but in groups. The cell doors pop open, and the inmates then rush to use the phone.

Harwood Ah-Sing said that as recently as a month ago, some Nevada inmates were housed in cells next to Hawaii inmates, and would be released into the same common areas for phone time and showers.

CoreCivic, which operates the Saguaro Correctional Center, says it has followed all guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for correctional facilities. Inmates report grueling days of quarantine lockdowns. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

State Rep. Takashi Ohno, who was recently named chairman of the House Corrections, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, has expressed concern about the spread of the virus in Saguaro. He suggested that Hawaii may hold off on any plan to send additional inmates to Arizona “until they can get their issues settled.”

David Johnson, a criminologist and University of Hawaii professor of sociology, said it is striking that there seems to be little public or media interest in the COVID-19 outbreaks at Saguaro and in the state correctional system.

“In my view, what happened at OCCC was alarming and concerning and outrageous in all kinds of ways, and even that didn’t receive all that much attention until very late in the day, when it was actually exploding,” said Johnson.

“What if these were not prison inmates? What if they were college students, or college professors, or employees at a large local corporation? I’m quite sure the public reaction, the official reaction, the media reactions would be very different than it is in this case,” he said.

He said it is “deeply unfortunate” that the response of many people to news of outbreaks inside prisons is a shrug, and a suggestion that the inmates deserve what they get.

“They are human beings, they’re citizens. Both in law and in morality they continue to possess rights and interests and dignity that need to be respected and that ought to be respected, and on a grand scale, those things do not happen,” he said.

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