The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii is urging the state to guarantee at-risk prison and jail inmates are included among the people who can receive the COVID-19 vaccination early.

The ACLU made the request last week, just days before the state announced the death of a fourth inmate who was infected.

The state Department of Public Safety on Friday announced the death of an unidentified male Saguaro Correctional Center inmate who was over 65 years old after an Arizona medical examiner classified the death as related to COVID-19.

Three other inmates who died last year also tested positive for the coronavirus, but the Pinal County Medical Examiner’s Office opined that two of those deaths were not related to the disease. Those two prisoners, who were also at Saguaro, had other high-risk conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.

Prison officials said Friday the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona now has no active inmate COVID-19 cases, but the ACLU said that 1,809 inmates and 190 correctional staff members have tested positive since August.

Four Hawaii prisoners at Saguaro have died after testing positive for COVID-19, and the ACLU of Hawaii wants at-risk prison inmates in Hawaii and Arizona to be vaccinated. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“With around 4,100 people behind bars at any given point, this likely constitutes a higher infection rate than that for anyone else receiving the vaccine,” according to the ACLU letter dated Jan. 5. The letter was addressed to Gov. David Ige, Lt. Gov. Josh Green and the directors of the Health and Public Safety departments.

“Such high rate — which has a disparate impact on people of color, including Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders — exists in spite of inconsistent and infrequent testing at correctional facilities,” according to the letter signed by ACLU Legal Director Mateo Caballero.

Caballero also expressed concern that “we continue to hear that the safety and health conditions for people inside prison and jail have not significantly improved.”

The letter asks the state to provide assurance it will follow its own vaccination plan, which calls for Hawaii residents with underlying health conditions or age 65 and older who are living in congregate, overcrowded settings to be in Stage 1 for vaccinations, moving them to the front of the line.

Inmates should qualify without regard to whether they are incarcerated, according to Caballero.

The Department of Public Safety replied in a written statement Monday that it is “in constant communication with the Department of Health (DOH), the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) and the counties, as we work on the plan for vaccinating prisoners as well as staff.

“The correctional staff are part of Phase 1B which is underway. According to the State Vaccination Plan, inmates will be included in the next phase,” according to the Public Safety statement.

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