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Despite dangers of COVID-19 in jails and prisons, many Hawaii inmates not getting vaccine

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Jails and prisons have been among the most dangerous places to be during the coronavirus pandemic, with the virus sweeping through overcrowded and poorly ventilated facilities, and in Hawaii infecting hundreds of prisoners and killing at least nine. Last year, as vaccines began to show promise, Hawaii health officials vowed to make vaccinating inmates a top priority, placing them in line among the state’s other most vulnerable groups.

But more than four months into the vaccine rollout, the number of vaccinations being administered within some facilities housing Hawaii inmates remains troublingly low, according to data released Friday by the state Department of Public Safety.

At Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., which houses about 1,075 Hawaii prisoners, only 236 inmates had received at least one dose of a vaccine as of the end of April, suggesting that the vaccination rate within the facility is likely about 1 in 5.

The data also suggests that large numbers of inmates in Hawaii’s jails, which mainly house pretrial detainees and low-level offenders, are likely going unvaccinated. The figures say only how many inmates total have been vaccinated at a facility, however, and don’t translate into percentages. Inmates are transferred in and out of facilities or released.

The number of vaccines being administered at state prisons, including Halawa Correctional Facility and Waiawa Correctional Facility, which have also had major outbreaks, is much higher, suggesting that large numbers of inmates have likely been vaccinated. At Halawa, for example, 682 Halawa inmates have received at least one shot of the vaccine at the facility, which houses about 752 inmates.

Eric Seitz, a Honolulu attorney who has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Public Safety on behalf of inmates over lax coronavirus protections, said the numbers are consistent with a larger pattern of unsafe conditions.

“It is very haphazard, there’s very little strategic thinking and there’s very little concern about not only the physical safety, but the emotional well-being of the inmates, many of whom are scared to death because they know and they’ve seen people get really sick and they’ve seen people die,” said Seitz. “So it is, and it continues to be, a catastrophe.”

The data provides a window into how well Hawaii is doing vaccinating inmates, but it’s also of limited value. When an employee of the Kauai Community Correctional Center tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, setting off concerns that there would be another major outbreak at one of the state’s jails, public safety officials couldn’t say what percentage of the current inmate population or staff was protected by vaccines. The data released Friday provides only a rough estimation of how well the population may be protected.

Both the Department of Public Safety and Department of Health said they don’t track the percentages of inmates or staff vaccinated at each facility.

By comparison, there’s been robust tracking of vaccination rates at Hawaii’s long-term care facilities, including among residents and staff. By mid-February, statistics were showing that the vast majority of residents and staff had been vaccinated.

Jongwook “Wookie” Kim, legal director of the Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he found the numbers, particularly for Saguaro, concerning. But he was also troubled that there wasn’t real-time data on vaccination rates, including how many inmates have received not just one, but both shots, in each facility.

“It’s not rocket science here,” he said.

“That part is very concerning, that the numbers they are tracking and reporting don’t necessarily align with what needs to be tracked or considered in determining whether conditions are safe within the context of the COVID situation.”

Inmates remain vulnerable

Department of Public Safety Director Max Otani wasn’t available for an interview, but in response to written questions, he said the department has been working with health officials to ensure all inmates can receive the vaccine but that unfortunately, many inmates were declining to be immunized.

“Just like some members of the public, inmates can fall for the misinformation that wrongly claims that vaccines aren’t safe, and have expressed concerns about the side effects,” said Otani.

Many jail inmates are also coming in straight off the streets and high on drugs, added Otani, making them unwilling or unable to make an informed decision during intake about whether to consent to a shot.

“It may take up to two weeks for their minds to clear enough to make that decision,” he said.

“Our health care and security staff are doing everything they can to encourage inmates to get vaccinated. They frequently go back to inmates who have said no to see if they will reconsider, in the hopes that they will get the shot before they are released.”

The situation at Saguaro Correctional Center appears to be entirely different. The prison, which houses nearly half of Hawaii’s prison population, remains apart from the policy decisions being made in Hawaii. It’s not clear whether prisoners were ever prioritized in Arizona. But the state, as well as Pinal County, where the prison is located, opened up vaccines to anyone 18 and older as early as mid-March. It appears that the vaccines aren’t making their way to large numbers of inmates, though it’s not clear why.

Hawaii Department of Public Safety officials said the vaccine was currently being offered only to inmates 55 and older, and referred additional questions to Pinal County.

Kore Redden, Pinal County Public Health’s Bio-Defense Preparedness and Response administrator, said the county did indeed open up vaccinations to groups 18 and older in March. However, he said it was up to each provider to adjust to the changes. “Therefore, if Saguaro Correctional Facility is vaccinating 55 years and up, that decision is made by them,” he said by email.

Ryan Gustin, a spokesman for CoreCivic, which operates Saguaro, said the prison was working with its “government partners,” including the Hawaii Public Safety Department, to provide the vaccine to inmates as quickly as possible. He said the prison was “following the plan and protocols established by the State of Arizona and the Pinal County Health Department officials, for prioritizing recipients and administering the vaccine, and we encourage you to be in contact with them for any additional questions about those policies.”

Steve Elliott, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Health Services, referred inquires to the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Bill Lamoreaux, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, said his department doesn’t have jurisdiction over the facility.

Kim, the ACLU legal director, said that all the finger-pointing is exactly why housing inmates out of state in Saguaro is “such a bad idea.” “It allows for this vacuum when it comes to accountability,” said Kim.

This story has been updated to include a comment from an Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman.

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