ACLU urges vaccines for sick, elderly inmates

  • The entrance to the Halawa Correctional Facility. (File photo)

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation Hawaii is urging state officials to vaccinate sick and elderly incarcerated jail and prison inmates for COVID-19 on the same timetable they would individuals in the same risk groups who aren’t incarcerated.

In a Jan. 5 letter to Gov. David Ige, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, Health Director Dr. Libby Chair and Public Safety Director Max Otani, ACLU Hawaii Legal Director Mateo Caballero said, “We write to ask your to clarify that — consistent with the state’s own vaccination plan — all Hawaii residents with underlying health conditions or aged 65 and older living in congregate, overcrowded conditions … be able to receive the vaccine without regard to whether they are incarcerated or not.”

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“All of Hawaii’s largest COVID-19 clusters have been in jails and in prisons,” Caballero wrote.

As of Tuesday, an outbreak at Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu remained active.

According to the Department of Public Safety, there were 111 active COVID-19 cases among the 543 inmates who tested positive at the medium-security prison. Eight inmates were hospitalized, and 103 were in medical isolation.

At Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., a privately run facility, 655 of 657 Hawaii inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 had recovered, and two inmates had reportedly died of COVID-19. Another two inmates who were pronounced dead of other causes had COVID-19, according to a Dec. 7 story in Civil Beat.

According to DPS, Saguaro, Oahu Community Correctional Center and Waiawa Correctional Facility on Oahu, are clear of all active positive COVID cases in inmates.

At Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo, there have been two cases — one inmate and one staffer. Both have recovered, according to DPS.

DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said Monday correctional staff are a part of Phase 1B of the state’s vaccination plan, a phase that is underway, and inmates are Phase 2, while the state and counties “work on the plan for vaccinating prisoners as well as staff.”

Hawaii has a “limited supply” of the COVID-19 vaccine and is working on vaccinating “high-risk priority groups,” according to the state Department of Health website.

DOH spokesman Brooks Baehr said the department “appreciates the ACLU’s concerns.”

“We recognize inmates as a population that needs to be vaccinated, and we are working them into the vaccination schedule,” he said Monday.

Speaking Monday on a Facebook Live stream, Green, who’s also an emergency room physician at Kohala Hospital, noted “closed institutional living is risky.”

“We’ve been emphasizing getting all of our guards vaccinated first,” Green said. ” … We really wanted the state personnel to get vaccinated right away, because we didn’t want them to spread it any more.

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“But the prisoners are vulnerable and they … often end up in the hospital, because they can get sick like anybody else; then it impacts everybody.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald

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