Staff at the Maui jail filed grievances about cell locks that did not function properly years before the March 11 riot, and also warned that short-staffing was endangering their safety and that of the inmates, according to documents obtained by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Jail staff allege the facility was short-handed when the inmate uprising began and also contend corrections officers were not properly equipped or trained to respond. The temporarily assigned warden for Maui Community Correctional Center was on vacation and not at the jail when the incident began, MCCC staff said.
Staff also reported there is no video recording of the inmate uprising because the only functioning mounted camera in that area of the jail pointed into the recreation area — which was not the focus of the disturbance — and cannot record. There was a hand-held camera on the site, but its memory card was full, they said.
Three staff members familiar with the incident who discussed it with Star-Advertiser asked that they not be identified because they fear the corrections administration may punish them for speaking publicly about problems at the jail.
The Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing today to consider the nomination of Department of Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda to run the corrections system for the next four years. Committee Chairman Clarence Nishihara said he will not support Espinda for another term as director.
“It was really critical,” Nishihara said of the Maui uprising in an interview Wednesday. “Although the department keeps trying to downplay it by calling it a disturbance, it was clearly a riot by any measure when you look at what occurred.”
Public Safety officials said 42 inmates refused to return to their cells shortly before 3 p.m. on March 11, and began breaking fire sprinklers, which began shooting water into the common area. Inmates also started a fire that filled portions of the jail with smoke, and the smoke drifted into another module where inmates began another disturbance.
Public safety staff reported the incidents in both modules had been contained by 6:26 p.m. but said damage to the two modules was “significant.”
Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said the uprising caused $5.3 million in damage to MCCC, but corrections officials are seeking another $8 million to make long-term security improvements at the jail.
Nishihara said he was told inmates got into a storeroom and took out chemicals such as bleach and ammonia that they tried to use to produce “poisonous gasses,” and they also tried to break into the control box for the modules, he said.
The incident represents a failure by Espinda to protect his employees because they did not have adequate protective gear, did not have
adequate staff to handle the uprising, “and whoever was left in charge (at MCCC) didn’t know what to do,” Nishihara said.
One staffer familiar with the incident said “a handful” of corrections officers entered the modules when the smoke from the fires set by inmates became life threatening, and removed inmates and restored order.
Those corrections officers had a “mix-match” of riot- control equipment, some with helmets and some without, some with protective body vests, and some without, the staffer said.
In a written response to questions, Schwartz said, “Two teams were formed and given riot gear. OC (pepper) spray and batons were given out as well. Some staff were given fire extinguishers to put out the fire. Use of Force training is provided each year.”
As for the video camera, “upon collection of the video evidence recorded,
it was discovered that the (memory) card had been
removed,” she said in her statement. “Attempts to recover the missing (memory) card have thus far failed. Efforts to retrieve it will continue during the course of the ongoing investigation.”
Nishihara said he was told the facility is supposed to have a staff of 170 people, and only had 116. Concerns about staff shortages were echoed by MCCC staffers, with one suggesting that “if we had the staff members down there, that thing probably wouldn’t have gone that far.”
Schwartz said that “adequate staffing was in place on all shifts. All staff on duty, as well as those that responded from home, are each to be commended for effectively and professionally responding to the disturbance. They performed as their experience and training had prepared them and as a result, the disturbance was contained with no serious injuries to inmates or staff.”
“We believe the incident stemmed from long-standing conditions of overcrowding, not staffing levels,” Schwartz said. “PSD has
expressed regularly, in all possible forms, our deep concern for the admitted overcrowded conditions in our jails across the state. Until the additional bed spaces (at various stages
of progress) become reality, the department will continue to do all in our power and capability to operate safe, secure, clean, and constitutionally compliant facilities statewide.”
Staff disputed some of Schwartz’s statements, including her description of staffing and training at MCCC. They said positions deemed to be nonessential have been cut over the years, which reduced the number of workers on each shift, and said they do not receive riot response training annually.
Nishihara said corrections officials have been blaming the uprising on overcrowding at the jail, “but that doesn’t seem to
be the full picture of what was going on.”
“Those are serious questions we have to ask, and the director has to come forward with a good accounting of what went on,” he said.
Staff at the jail said one of the triggers for the inmate disturbance was that telephones for the prisoners did not work. Inmates would sometimes become angry during a phone call and break the phones, and some were out of order for months, staffers said. Other inmates became upset when they were unable to call their families or lawyers.
After the riot, repair personnel were called to fix the phones in Module B, where the disturbance began. Work on all five phones was completed in less than an hour, staff said. “It could have easily been a fix if it was addressed,” one staffer said.
Schwartz said in her statement that new phones were installed at MCCC last year, but inmates did break some before the disturbance. A work order was put in to replace the phones, and inmates were updated on the replacement timeline before the disturbance. “The work order was expedited after the disturbance,” she said.
Records provided to the Star-Advertiser show MCCC corrections officers warned the prison administration and the United Public Workers union that inmates were able to open the doors of some cells and escape into other areas in the jail.
One account filed with the UPW by a corrections officer described an incident in January when two maximum custody inmates escaped from their cell and assaulted another inmate who was on recreation time. That corrections officer blamed the incident on MCCC’s practice of using inmates on work lines to fix the locking mechanisms on cell doors.
The inmates on the work lines “are learning to manipulate these security devices, and have pass(ed) that knowledge on to other inmates,” the officer wrote. “They seem to have been always ahead of the game, but no one realizes that we are aiding their professionalism against our advantages.”
Corrections officers complained in writing to the union or filed formal grievances over the faulty locks in 2016, 2018 and this year, according to the records. During the March 11 riot, some inmates let themselves out of their cells, which contributed to the chaos, according to several members of the MCCC staff.
Schwartz did not respond directly to that issue, saying only that “all damage to the facility is a priority to be replaced and or repaired. The filed grievances are contractual matters that are handled solely between the employer and the union.”
She added that consultants “did walk-throughs for permanent security solutions to the damaged glass windows, cell doors, modern locking mechanisms and overall electronics system.”