Public Safety director says severe overcrowding at Maui jail likely cause of riot

The damage at Maui Community Correctional Center after Monday's 'disturbance'

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The head of the Public Safety Department said severe overcrowding at the Maui Community Correctional Center is “probably what led to” a riot that ended with significant damage to the jail.

(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

“Conditions surrounding overcrowding create tense moments,” said Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda. “I’m sure that, generally speaking, overcrowding in the institution was a major contributor.”

He added while three staff members sustained minor injuries, it could have been much worse.

State Public Safety officials said at least 42 inmates of 94 in a shared housing module were involved in the incident.

One module - with nearly 100 inmates total - is now out of commission because of the damage. Those inmates gave all had to be relocated to other areas of the facility.

And that’s further exacerbating the overcrowding at the jail, Espinda said.

The facility now houses about 410 people. It’s designed for 301 beds. The other module, which also houses nearly 100 inmates, is still usable.

The riot started about 2:45 p.m. when dozens of inmates refused to comply with orders to return to their cells after recreation time was over.

Officials said the inmates broke fire sprinklers ― flooding a housing module with water ― and then started a small fire that sent heavy smoke wafting into an adjacent module. Both of those housing units sustained “significant damage.”

Correctional officers and police were able to bring the riot under control by 6:26 p.m.

On Tuesday morning, the facility remained on lockdown and those involved in the riot were being questioned. The inmates responsible for the incident face criminal charges and disciplinary action.

The Department of Public Safety initially said no one was injured in the incident, but amended that statement Tuesday, saying that three staff members sustained minor injuries.

The injuries included a cut from shattered glass and skin irritation from pepper spray exposure.

Maui jail remains on lockdown after riot, hours-long standoff

In the wake of the riot, armed guards were patrolling the facility and residents were on edge.

Sonia Patao, who lives near the jail, said she initially thought the incident Monday was an escape.

“We just kept the kids inside. It was kind of scary,” she said. “These kinds of things really don’t happen on Maui.”

Fermo Escalona, who across the street from the correctional center, said the riot is a reminder of the dangers of the facility. “It’s so close to us. There’s also a chance that something might happen," Escalona said.

Maui Community Correctional Center, located on about seven acres in Wailuku, holds pre-trial detainees along with sentenced felons and parole violators who are being prepared for release back into the community.

For years, advocates have raised concerns about overcrowding at the jail ― and others in the islands. And in September, the state was slapped with $24,000 in fines for safety violations at the 40-year-old facility.

The incident comes as the state Department of Public Safety faces increased scrutiny and concerns about mismanagement.

Late last month, an Oahu Community Correctional Center escapee was fatally shot after escaping from the facility through an open vehicular gate.

Espinda called the escape “a major mistake.”

“Those things don’t just happen,” he said, in a news conference following the incident. “As you might expect, we’re very early into the investigation, and it will be both criminal by HPD and administrative by my staff.”

The escape was the latest in a string of issues involving the Department of Public Safety that have triggered doubt about his confirmation before the state Senate.

This story will be updated.

Copyright 2019 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.