State prison officials have ordered mass Covid-19 testing of all Hawaii inmates serving time in a privately run prison in Arizona after five inmates who returned to Hawaii on a regularly scheduled rotation earlier this month tested positive upon arrival.

The five were among 118 inmates sent back to Hawaii on the same chartered flight on Aug. 18. Rapid testing of all of the inmates after disembarking detected the five, and follow-up testing has found a total of 21 prisoners on that flight have caught the coronavirus so far, according Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz.

Hawaii holds more than 1,000 inmates at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, because there is no room for them in Hawaii prisons. Saguaro is run by private prison operator CoreCivic, which told Hawaii prison officials that none of the inmates had Covid-19 symptoms when they boarded the aircraft, Schwartz said.

However, “the Department of Public Safety has expressed concern to Saguaro and CoreCivic about the recent positive inmate cases and has instructed Saguaro to mass test all inmates at the facility and include testing prior to transfers,” Schwartz said Monday in a statement.

Hawaii holds about 1,000 prisoners at the Saguaro Correctional Center, a private prison in Eloy, Arizona, and some of inmates returning from the prison tested positive for Covid-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

The newly arrived inmates are all in a “mandatory travel-related intake quarantine” as described in the Department of Public Safety’s Pandemic Response Plan, according to Schwartz.

Inmates are placed in a 10-day quarantine prior to travel to monitor for symptoms of Covid-19, she said, and Saguaro reported that no inmates were exhibiting symptoms. All had their temperature checked prior to boarding and were cleared for transport by Saguaro.

In a written response to questions about the new cases, Schwartz said Saguaro reported no new Covid-19 cases in June or July, and data from the department shows the company has reported fewer cases per capita among inmates at Saguaro during the pandemic than Hawaii’s largest prison.

For some, that raises questions about the accuracy of the data being provided by the company, especially since Hawaii has had much lower per capita Covid-19 infection rates overall than Arizona.

Hawaii correctional staffers have speculated for some time that CoreCivic may be reporting low numbers of Covid-19 infections because Saguaro tests less often than Hawaii, and data published by the state Department of Public Safety suggests that may be the case.

Halawa Correctional Facility, which is Hawaii’s largest prison, was holding 795 inmates as of last week, and had done 12,279 Covid-19 tests since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Saguaro, which was holding 1,086 Hawaii prisoners last week, had done just 3,898 tests of the Hawaii inmates in Arizona, according to the department.

Not surprisingly, Saguaro also reported far fewer positive tests.

Saguaro reported more than a year ago that as of Aug. 10, 2021, a total of 657 Hawaii inmates there had tested positive for the virus. More recently, the company reports the total number of inmates who had tested positive as of Aug. 23, 2022 climbed to 696, which amounts to just 39 new cases in more than a year.

By comparison, the total number of positive tests of inmates at Halawa nearly doubled during the same period. The total number of positive tests of prisoners at Halawa increased from 596 on Aug. 10, 2021 to 1,166 on Aug. 23 of this year. That amounts to 570 new cases during the past year.

The virus has been blamed in the deaths of 10 Hawaii prisoners who died in custody since the pandemic began, including eight inmates at Halawa and two at Saguaro. Two other prisoners who died at Saguaro also tested positive for Covid-19, but those fatalities were blamed on the inmates’ chronic health problems.

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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