HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In an anonymous letter sent to members of the media, staff members at a Maui jail said a riot at the facility left them fearing for their lives ― and the public should be worried about their safety in its wake.
“The inconvenient truth about your jail is that it’s not safe, we’re not safe and the public is not safe,” the unnamed Maui Community Correctional staff members said in a letter sent to Hawaii News Now.
The letter, which MCCC staff members said they did not sign for fear of retaliation, says some guards feared for their lives during the March 11 riot.
They also say the incident involved 214 inmates who breached their cell doors and destroyed everything they could, lighting fires and even attempting to burn officers alive in their control boxes.
“The modules which are supposed to be the most secured place in Maui is now the most unsecured place on Maui," the letter said.
The letter continues: “We responded by forming riot teams that were ill-equipped or not equipped at all and not a single officer was issued personal protective equipment before entering the modules. Due to being poorly equip, out-numbered and knowing the seriousness of the battle ahead we were scared for our lives, but still performed our job duties to the best of our abilities."
It also said officers who tried to save inmates were assaulted and it took sheer physical force to suppress the riots.
The state Department of Public Safety has called the riot a “disturbance,” and sought to characterize it as a symptom of severe overcrowding and the work of a handful of individuals.
But staff members paint a different picture. They said what happened was a full-fledged, eight-hour-long riot and that multiple lives were in danger.
“The fact of the matter is that all of us are less safe when you have conditions of confinement like the ones that were outlined in that letter,” said Mateo Caballero, American Civil Liberties Union Hawaii legal director.
“If people held at MCCC wanted, they could in fact, sounds like, open the cells and potentially hurt someone else. And both correctional officers and the Department of Public Safety do not have the situation under control.”
The letter comes just days before the embattled director of the state Department of Public Safety is up for his confirmation hearing.
“When you’re in charge of a Department of Public Safety and you have rioting in the prisons, you have high numbers of inmate suicide, you gotta ask, who’s in charge here,” said State Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Safety.
“Either you’re in charge or you’re not in charge and if you’re not in charge, maybe we need to find someone who is."
Nishihara said that he will not be recommending Nolan Espinda on Thursday.
"Ultimately, it's the governor's decision who he appoints, and so far, he seems to want to reappoint him. But I think unless we look at someone with a different perspective and heading a different direction, we're going to continue to operate the prisons the way we currently do and still have the problems we do,” Nishihara said.
Meanwhile, DPS issued this statement on Tuesday:
“The Maui Community Correctional Center (MCCC) staff did an amazing job during the serious situation they faced. They responded professionally and efficiently by using their training to bring order back to their facility within a few hours. We are very proud of the staff who continue to come to work and support their crew in less than ideal conditions.
The comments contained in the provided letter portray trauma that we are all working through at this time. There absolutely has not been, nor will there be, any retaliatory actions heaped upon an already embattled group of dedicated employees. These employees continuously work under the most difficult of conditions and are commended and not condemned or second-guessed, for their continued dedication and professionalism during this period of recovery.
At present time, MCCC is making every effort to return to full normal operations. We understand the concerns of staff who have had to deal with the overcrowded and outdated infrastructure of an old jail for many years.
In fact, we have housing projects currently in the planning process to help alleviate the persistent and significant overcrowded conditions at the Kauai, Maui and Hawaii jails. You can see all of our newsletters, reports and studies on the neighbor island housing projects here: http://dps.hawaii.gov/neighbor-island-jails-project/
PSD has regularly expressed, in all possible forums, our deep concerns for the admitted overcrowded conditions in our jails across the state that our staff work in and inmates are housed in. Until our additional bed spaces across the state become a reality, PSD will continue to do all in its power and capability to continue to operate safe, secure, clean and constitutionally compliant facilities across the state.
The current immediate FY 19 emergency repair estimate is for $5.3 million dollars. Additionally, the Department is seeking an additional $8 million in FY 20 CIP for long term security grade improvements.
The recovery process is ongoing daily. The sprinklers have been fixed. Security glass windows to the control room have been replaced. The individual cell windows (covered with plywood) facing the recreation field are being replaced with glass today by MCCC staff, with the help of HCCC building maintenance staff who flew over to assist. A cleaning company started yesterday on removing the char and soot on the walls from the small fire set by inmates during the initial disturbance. Televisions have been replaced in the two modules. New storage room doors were ordered and are being shipped from the mainland. We are also awaiting a shipment from the mainland of replacement furniture for the common area of the module that had the initial disturbance. Individual toilets and sinks in cells, and tier showers were destroyed by the participating inmates. The replacement fixtures were ordered. The facility is awaiting the shipment to arrive from the mainland. Alternate unrestricted toilet access and restricted shower access is being provided every inmate at MCCC.
There are also permanent updates and upgrades in the works. The Departments Capital Improvement Project (CIP) staff brought in consultants who did walk-throughs for permanent security solutions to the damaged glass windows, cell doors, modern locking mechanisms and overall electronics system. Cost estimates are as initially indicated in #1 above and will be continuously adjusted as work and conditions evolve.”
The day after the riot Espinda blamed overcrowding and a staff shortage for the incident.
“They say were understaffed, but they don’t explain why. I have been talking to ACOs, adult correctional officers, who have basically told me that people who have been working there for a long time are leaving because of the rampant corruption in that department,” said Kat Brady, Community Alliance on Prisons coordinator. “Everything is covered up. It’s really the Department of Punishment and Secrecy, it’s not really the Department of Public Safety.”