Hawaii corrections officer: Understaffing putting lives at risk

Maui ACO: Under-staffing and Overcrowding Puts Lives at Risk
Published: May. 30, 2017 at 5:50 PM HST|Updated: May. 31, 2017 at 1:57 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It's no secret that jails and prisons in Hawaii are badly overcrowded.

It's something even Nolan Espinda, director of the state's Department of Public Safety, readily admits.

But for the first time, a prison guard is speaking publicly about the dire conditions for inmates and officers.

The adult corrections officer from the Maui Community Correctional Center, who spoke with Hawaii News Now on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said it's not just an issue of jail overcrowding but understaffing.

And it's a situation so unsafe,he said, that many guards believe their lives are in jeopardy.

"It's only a matter of time before somebody loses their life. It is," the guard said.

"If you go to the male modules ... you have your control man, who sits in the control box, and then you have a rover. You're supposed to have a floor (guard), which would give you three, but you're only getting the two. And that's one rover to upwards of 90 to 95 men."

The guard said administration and the MCCC warden are aware of the dangerous working conditions, but haven't done anything to solve the problems.

ACLU: Conditions are unconstitutional

"They know, they know. What has the response been? Nothing, that's how it is," the guard said.

Espinda, who heads up Public Safety, said managers face difficult decisions about where to station corrections officers depending on how many show up to work on any given day. But he said guards' lives are never put at risk.

"We are staffed at our institutions in conjunction with union agreements," he said. "We are often left at the mercy of staff attendance. We do the best we can to accommodate the needs of the institution while keeping the operation safe and secure."

He added, "I think it's an over-dramatization to assume that a death may occur because of any particular condition that's going on. I think we run very good and safe jails and prisons in Hawaii and should be proud of that operation."

In January, the ACLU formally asked the Department of Justice to investigate what it alleges are unconstitutional conditions and overcrowding in Hawaii prisons and jails.

It says Maui Community Correctional Center is the worst.

"One of the ones we get the most complaints about ... (and) one of the most overcrowded ones is MCCC. It's almost double the capacity it was originally built for," said Mateo Caballero, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii. "Cells that were designed to hold two people, sometimes have four or five in them. Very unsanitary conditions, not adequate medical staff, not enough guards."

For his part, Espinda doesn't think the conditions are unconstitutional, but agrees they need to change.

"Overcrowding in and of itself is not an unconstitutional condition," Espinda said.

"I think the collection of complaints made by the ACLU come from a certain perspective and I respect that I take that as an opportunity to improve every day. We are grossly overcrowded. I have rang that emergency bell on three different occasions at three different legislative sessions."

Some cells 'look like they're for animals'

State Sen. Will Espero, an outspoken critic of Hawaii's corrections system, said as bad as it may be on Maui, Oahu Community Correctional Center is the priority for improvement.

"I've been in OCCC. I've seen some of those cells. Some of them look like they're for animals," Espero said.

Caballero, of ACLU, added that the situation is inhumane and jeopardizes the goal of rehabilitating Hawaii's incarcerated.

"As you look at the big picture, hopefully the purpose of incarceration should be to rehabilitate people. To make sure when you come out a better person and you will not commit another crime. By the way we're treating the prisoners right now, there's no way that's going to happen."

The corrections officer Hawaii News Now spoke with agrees, but points to understaffing as being as much of a problem as overcrowding.

"They have the right to be safe, secure, fed, given medical care, treatment, and to be treated like human beings, and that's policy, that's department policy, that's our job," he said. "We're supposed to do that but we really can't do all of that if we're now in a position if we're outnumbered, were overcrowded, it's stress and its dangerous."

Solutions being sought

Espinda said to alleviate overcrowding there needs to be a combination of alternatives to incarceration as well as additional beds.

In fact, the director said, DPS will soon be adding bed space to jails on Kauai, Maui and Hilo.

"We try to do innovative things like maximize the amount of out of cell time, reducing the number of hours that they need to spend confined in those cells in tight quarters. But like I've said, and like we freely admit, through the years, its a challenge." Espinda said.

"We've been granted $8 million this year to begin our plans towards moving all of the female population out of OCCC to the women's facility. These things will all address all of the population problems we are having across the state."

The corrections officer has a message for Espinda, though: "I would tell him that he really needs to take a hard look at his line staff and start looking at how he can treat them better, show some concern, ask the hard question -- why don't people want to be at work? Because lets face it, its been in the news before, we have a issue with attendance but no one has ever looked at why. He needs to do that."

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