Five staff members at an Arizona prison where Hawaii inmates are being housed recently tested positive for COVID-19, prompting corrections officials to quarantine the inmates living in an unnamed unit of the facility, according to the Department of Public Safety.

As of last month more than 1,100 Hawaii inmates were being held at Eloy, Arizona, in the Saguaro Correctional Center, a privately run prison that is operated by CoreCivic. The inmates are housed on the mainland because there is no room for them in Hawaii correctional facilities.

Saguaro Correctional Facility, Eloy, Arizona patrol. 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Saguaro Correctional Facility in Eloy, Arizona, where many Hawaii inmates are held. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

It is unclear if the new cases among the staff signal the start of a new outbreak among the inmates at Saguaro, where 657 Hawaii inmates have already been infected with the coronavirus since the start of the the pandemic.

Two of those Hawaii convicts died of the disease, and the rest have recovered, according to data provided by the Hawaii Department of Public Safety. Autopsies revealed two other Hawaii prisoners at Saguaro also died after becoming infected, but Arizona health officials blamed those deaths on the inmates’ pre-existing conditions.

A key strategy for preventing the spread of the virus in prisons is vaccinating the prisoners, but Department of Public Safety Deputy Director for Corrections Tommy Johnson said in June the department does not know what fraction of the Saguaro inmates have been vaccinated.

Corrections officials have said the supply of vaccine for the inmates at Saguaro is controlled by Arizona health authorities. Johnson said earlier this year the vaccine supply at Saguaro was limited, adding, “I wish we could get it in higher quantities.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety said Tuesday she was researching the issue of what percentage of Hawaii inmates now at Saguaro are vaccinated. A family member of one inmate at the Arizona prison said Tuesday that inmate had asked to be vaccinated, but never heard a response from the prison administration.

The inmates in quarantine at the prison are eating in their cells, and are being allowed out of their cells for 20 minutes every other day for showers and to use the telephones, according to the family member.

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