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Outbreaks at Hawaii’s jails and prisons show lack of data on vaccinations

Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state’s jails and prisons, says it can’t track COVID-19 vaccination rates among correctional officers, even as a growing corona­virus outbreak at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo exposes the ongoing risks posed by unvaccinated workers and inmates.

Public Safety officials also told the Honolulu Star- Advertiser that reassigning unvaccinated guards to nonfront-line duties, as Lt. Gov. Josh Green suggested last week, just isn’t feasible.

The cluster at the Hilo jail had grown to 136 active inmate cases and 11 staff cases as of Saturday, according to DPS. Like all of Hawaii’s jails, the facility is severely overcrowded, with about 350 inmates crammed into a space designed to hold just 206, exacerbating the risk of virus transmission.

Toni Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the department, said by email that “staff are not required to report their private medical information, including if they have been vaccinated.”

DPS didn’t respond to followup questions about what specifically bars the department from requiring, or just requesting, this information. Guards have other medical requirements they have to fulfill, including tuberculosis and drug screenings. They must also undergo a psychological evaluation and physical exam before working in a correctional facility.

Information about vaccination rates among correctional facility staff has been made available in other states. A review of records from 36 states in April by the Prison Policy Initiative, which advocates for reforming the country’s correctional systems, found that overall less than half of prison staff were vaccinated, not enough to protect inmates or surrounding communities.

Vaccination rates among prison staff were as low as 11% in Michigan and 13% in Alabama. Hawaii was one of 14 states where data was unavailable.

DPS says it also doesn’t track the percentage of inmates in its facilities who are vaccinated, though the department has provided the overall number of vaccines it has administered in each facility. For instance, 140 inmates have been vaccinated at HCCC. But the population is transient, making this figure largely meaningless when trying to figure out what percentage of inmates is protected against the current outbreak.

Hawaii’s jails and prisons have suffered major outbreaks since the start of the pandemic, raising concerns about safety protocols and spread beyond the walls of the facilities. The state prioritized those being held at state correctional facilities once a COVID-19 vaccine became available in December, but many have declined. Clusters at Oahu jails and prisons in recent months have been linked to dozens of cases in the community, according to Department of Health reports.

Green, who is also a doctor and the state’s COVID-19 liaison, warned on Monday that correctional officers shouldn’t be serving on the front lines and interacting with inmates if they haven’t been vaccinated.

“You are morally obligated if you are going to be front-facing patients in the hospital or individuals who are incarcerated or imprisoned if you are the prison guards, you are morally obligated to keep them safe,” Green told the Star- Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii on Monday.

He advised that such workers be reassigned to administrative jobs or other duties until they decide to get vaccinated or vaccination rates are high enough in Hawaii to largely prevent the virus from spreading.

However, DPS said last week that such a policy isn’t feasible due to guard shortages and union contracts. About one in seven of the agency’s 1,410 correctional officer positions are vacant.

“Correctional officers have the right to choose their duty post per their collective bargaining agreement. The department honors the union contract,” Schwartz said by email.

Liz Ho, administrator for United Public Workers, the union representing correctional officers, did not respond to an interview request for this story seeking the union’s views on whether it would support vaccine mandates or alternative assignments for unvaccinated correctional officers.

Ted Sakai, who serves on the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission and is a former DPS director, said that mandating the vaccine for new correctional officer recruits is likely more feasible than for officers already on the job, which requires a complicated union negotiation process.

He said reassigning unvaccinated workers would be difficult and that union contracts would likely require them to be paid at the overtime rate rather than their regular pay.

“I think Public Safety and the unions should be in active discussions. I think the union has some real benefit to gain too — mainly worker safety,” Sakai said. “You don’t want union members to be exposed to COVID, period. And if they are, you want to make sure they are protected to the extent possible.”

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