As confirmation looms, lawmakers grill Public Safety director

Public safety director faces tough questions as lawmakers try to dig deeper into Maui jail riot

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Just two days before the Senate Public Safety Committee will make a decision about his reconfirmation, Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda faced tough questions from lawmakers trying to dig deeper into last month's riot at the Maui Community Correctional Center.

Because criminal and administrative investigations of the riot are ongoing, Deputy Attorney General Craig Iha sat next to Espinda during the informational hearing on Tuesday, and advised him what questions he could and couldn't answer.

That annoyed some Senators who say the public deserves answers.

"When was the last time the equipment for the guards at MCCC was updated," asked State Sen. Rosalyn Baker, (D) South and West Maui.

Before Espinda could answer, Iha leaned over and whispered something to him.

"I'll tell you why I'm asking that question while you're mulling over whatever it was your attorney whispered in your ear," Baker quipped.

Baker says MCCC staff have contacted her office about the March 11th riot, saying it was inevitable -- and that many of the correctional officers had only a pair of handcuffs when the chaos broke out.

“(The riot) was not something that just occurred overnight. It had been festering and had been a problem for some time,” said Baker. “There are so many unanswered questions, and unfortunately, Director, because you are the director, it comes to your feet.”

State Sen. Breene Harimoto asked Espinda why the department initially downplayed the situation, calling it just a "disturbance."

"Were you made aware the severity of the incident," asked Harimoto.

"To the extent that people were verbally telling me what was going on, I heard every word they said and I read everything they said as quickly as they relayed it to me," answered Espinda.

The informational hearing was held to discuss several recent high-profile events that happened under Espinda's watch, including a fatal shooting at the State Capitol and an inmate who was shot and killed while trying to escape the Oahu Community Correctional Center.

Espinda promised more information once the investigations are complete and acknowledged more outreach to staff on his part will go a long way.

"I care deeply about all my staff and it hurts me that anybody down the line, whether they're on the neighbor islands or here on Oahu, would think that I don't," Espinda said.

The committee will be voting on Espinda’s re-confirmation on Thursday.

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