The number of infected inmates at the Hilo jail climbed to 136 over the weekend in the sixth major outbreak among Hawaii prisoners, but corrections officials admitted they still don’t know how many inmates in the state have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Public health officials are aggressively promoting vaccinations to try to achieve “herd immunity” and halt the spread of the coronavirus, but the data collected by the correctional system offers little guidance on when or if the state prisons and jails will ever reach that point.

That’s because the correctional system keeps a cumulative total of the number of inmates who are vaccinated at each facility but does not take even basic steps to update those calculations  — such as deleting vaccinated inmates from facility counts when they are released or transferred elsewhere.

At the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo, for example, corrections staff know that 140 prisoners at the jail received at least one shot since the vaccine became available last winter, but they don’t know how many or what fraction of the current inmate population has been vaccinated.

Hawaii Community Correctional Center HCCC entrance. September 24, 2020
Hawaii Community Correctional Center entrance, September 24, 2020. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“We are not able to compile percentages on inmate vaccinations due to the transient nature of the incarcerated population,” Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said in a written statement.

HCCC houses pre-trial arrestees and many prisoners who are serving short stints for minor offenses, which means inmates are released from the facility daily as they post bail or complete their sentences. New inmates then quickly take their place.

When asked why the department compiles a number that does not accurately reflect how much progress has been made at vaccinating prisoners, Schwartz replied, “It’s what’s been recommended, and the guidance we’re following through (the Department of Health) to track our inmates.”

“Basically, if an inmate said ‘yes,’ it’s tracked at that facility that an inmate said yes. That’s how it goes,” she said.

COVID-19 has spread rapidly through inmate populations in crowded facilities both in Hawaii and on the mainland. The outbreak at HCCC began with an announcement on May 24 that two “recently-admitted inmates” had tested positive at the overcrowded Hilo jail.

The infected prisoners were being held in “intake-related quarantine housing” that was intended to isolate them from other inmates, but more cases were quickly discovered.

There have now been large outbreaks at five state-run prisons and jails in Hawaii as well as a sixth outbreak at a private prison in Arizona where Hawaii convicts are housed.

Many inmates have chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension that put them at higher risk of dying from COVID-19, and the disease has proved to be lethal in correctional facilities. A total of 2,112 Hawaii inmates have been infected with the coronavirus so far, and at least nine have died from it.

Given that history, it is disturbing that the department is not tracking what fraction of the inmate population is vaccinated at each facility, said Jongwook “Wookie” Kim, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.

High Risk

The vaccination numbers the department compiles are “in some senses, irrelevant,” Kim said. “What matters is the vaccination rate within the facility at a given point in time, not cumulatively how many people have been vaccinated (in) total.”

“The risk of an outbreak grows significantly based on the vaccination rate within a given community or context, and obviously prisons and jails are the worst sort of environments for outbreaks; what you saw at HCCC this week is perfect example of that,” Kim added.

“Sure, it requires work to track and to annotate each person’s records and files to indicate whether or not they’ve had the vaccine, but it’s not rocket science,” he said of the vaccination tracking.

The Department of Public Safety announced Saturday that another 37 prisoners at HCCC tested positive for the disease, bringing the total to 136 for the outbreak there. The jail had 348 inmates at the end of last month, which suggests more than a third of the inmate population there now has COVID-19.

No inmates have been hospitalized with the disease, but 17 staff members at the facility have also tested positive. Six of those staffers have recovered, according to data provided by the department.

Data released by the prison system shows that 2,383 inmates in Hawaii and Arizona had received at least one dose as of May 21, but it is not known how many of those inmates are still within the correctional system.

The prison system is offering the vaccine to every inmate, and for those who refuse, Public Safety and Department of Health staff “continually try to convince them to reconsider and get the shot before release,” Schwartz said in a statement.

In general, Schwartz said prison inmates who have been convicted and are serving longer sentences have been more accepting of the vaccine, Schwartz said.

By contrast, most jail inmates who are just entering the system after their arrests are intoxicated, she said.

“This makes most of them unwilling and/or unable to make an informed decision during intake about taking a shot,” Schwartz said. “It may take up to two weeks for their minds to clear enough to make that decision. Our health care and security staff are doing everything they can to encourage inmates to get vaccinated.”

The limited vaccination data available also suggests more of Hawaii’s in-state prison inmates have been vaccinated than the prisoners being held at the privately run Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona.

Only 302 of the convicts being held at Saguaro had received a dose by May 21, while state data shows 1,071 Hawaii inmates are being housed there. Hawaii holds inmates at the Saguaro facility run by CoreCivic Inc. because there is no room for them in state prisons.

Saguaro is in Pinal County, Arizona, which determines the allocation of vaccines to correctional facilities there, according to public safety spokeswoman Schwartz. Pinal officials also determine who is eligible to be vaccinated.

The Saguaro prison gets its supply of vaccine from the county, and the inmate vaccination effort began with prisoners who are 55 or older, she said in a written response to questions.

Most of the Hawaii prisoners are younger than 55, and “the 18+ group was approved to begin once the 55+ group was complete. They just started offering the vaccine to the rest of the population,” Schwartz said.

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