More than half of all inmates in state prisons and jails had been vaccinated for COVID-19 as of Monday, but fewer than a quarter of the prisoners at the Hilo jail had been inoculated, according to data provided by top corrections officials.

The figures provided the first comprehensive snapshot of the vaccination effort in correctional facilities, which have struggled with a series of outbreaks since the pandemic began last year.

In a sign of the ongoing threat, the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo had the lowest vaccination rate among all in-state prisons and jails, and is in the midst of an outbreak.

“That’s what’s killing us, to be honest,” said Tommy Johnson, deputy director for corrections with the state Department of Public Safety.

The department reported 53 active COVID-19 cases among inmates on Thursday and six among staff at the Hilo facility. No deaths or hospitalizations of inmates have been reported so far in that outbreak.

“If we can convince more inmates to take the vaccine … if we can hit that 70% or 80%, we won’t have these type of outbreaks,” Johnson told members of the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission on Thursday.

Halawa prison guard near 'Main Street' as inmates traverse from modules to modules. file photograph from 2015 December.
Officials say 71% of the inmates at the Halawa Correctional Facility, the state’s largest prison, had been vaccinated as of this week. That’s a higher percentage than the general population. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

In all, 2,220 Hawaii inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus at six correctional facilities since the pandemic began, and nine prison inmates have died of COVID-19. Among the employees, 271 correctional staff members have tested positive.

Public Safety Director Max Otani said some staff at Halawa who were infected with COVID-19 many weeks ago still haven’t recovered, and in some cases inmates who were vaccinated later contracted the disease.

Up to now corrections officials have said they did not know what percentage of the inmate populations at each Hawaii facility were vaccinated because facilities keep only cumulative totals of the number of prisoners who received the shots at each site.

That meant corrections officials never knew what fraction of the prisoners in custody at any given time were vaccinated because inmates are admitted and released from each facility each day.

However, the system’s Health Care Division finally compiled point-in-time data this week that showed 54% of inmates in custody as of Monday had been vaccinated to prevent COVID-19, department spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said Thursday. The state was holding 2,895 prisoners in eight in-state facilities that day.

By comparison, 57% of the overall state population has been fully vaccinated.

“If we can convince more inmates to take the vaccine … if we can hit that 70% or 80%, we won’t have these type of outbreaks.” — Tommy Johnson, Department of Public Safety

Otani said 1,588 prisoners had been vaccinated as of Monday while 1,126 had refused the injections, but the percentages vary significantly among the facilities.

The highest vaccination rate within the state prisons was at the minimum security Kulani Correctional Facility on Hawaii island, where 89% of the inmate population had received the shots as of Monday.

At the minimum security Waiawa Correctional Facility on Oahu, 82% of the inmates had been vaccinated as of this week. At Halawa, 71% of the convicts had been vaccinated, and 51% of the inmates at the Women’s Community Correctional Center were vaccinated.

Only 23% of the prisoners at the Hilo jail were vaccinated, and corrections officials said the inmate vaccination rates at all state jails tended to be lower.

Only 41% of the prisoners at the Oahu Community Correctional Center have received the shots, while 47% were vaccinated at Maui Community Correctional Center, Johnson said.

At the Kauai Community Correctional Center, 58% of the prisoners have been vaccinated, he said.

Another 210 inmates throughout the system had received one shot as of Monday, and were waiting for their second injection, Johnson said.

The state is holding another 1,124 convicts at the privately run Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, but Johnson said he did not have the vaccination rate for those inmates.

Inmates have been offered the vaccine multiple times, and they can request to be vaccinated at any time, Otani said.

“We’re trying, but it’s just a difficult group to convince,” Otani said.

Max Otani, director of the Department of Public Safety, says 1,588 prisoners had been vaccinated as of Monday while 1,126 had refused the injections. 

Staff at the prisons and jails put up flyers promoting vaccination, show the inmates a video on the subject during intake, and discuss the issue with them.

In most cases the inmates do not give a reason for refusing the vaccine, Johnson said.

“Honestly, I don’t know what else we can do except keep talking and keep talking and keep talking to them about it, (and) keep offering the vaccine to them,” Johnson said.

“That’s all we can do,” he added. “We try to tell them that, ‘If not for yourself, then for your loved ones,’ but some of these guys are just hardheaded.”

“I wish the family members of the folks incarcerated could encourage them to take the vaccine. That might help on our end, and it might help them as well,” he said.

Information is more limited about what fraction of staff has been vaccinated, Johnson said, because staff members may get their shots from their own doctors or at community clinics without reporting that to correctional authorities.

Surveys were distributed to staff to try to lean more about who had been vaccinated, but “very few people responded,” Otani said.

When asked if the state is considering requiring shots for staff, Gov. David Ige said the possibility was being considered but noted the vaccines have only emergency federal approval at the moment.

“We’ve talked about mandating vaccination for all employees at the jails,” Ige said Tuesday during an interview with the Civil Beat Editorial Board. “We are looking at what situations we would require it, and the obvious ones would be jails.”

Another concern is that vaccination was not required when the staff initially applied to work in the correctional system, Otani said.

The state Attorney General’s Office is now considering whether vaccination can be required for new hires, but “we haven’t gotten a solid answer yet,” he said.

“It will be a big union issue if we do make it mandatory, and I guess the issue is, what do we do with the staff that don’t want to be vaccinated,” Otani said. “We’re hurting for staff right now, we’re short, so displacing staff because they’re unvaccinated could be a problem.”

“In my discussions with the union, of course they’re not going to agree to have their members all vaccinated,” Otani said. “It’s a difficult thing. I guess we would have to at least start with the new hires.”

Liz Ho, administrator for United Public Workers, the union representing correctional officers, said some members support vaccination and some oppose it. The union has received no formal proposals from the state on the vaccination issue.

“The union is the members, and nothing has come to us in writing that we can take out to the members for consultation, or to vote, or have a say in,” Ho said, adding that she hasn’t polled the membership so doesn’t know where they stand.

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