Nolan Espinda was confirmed by the Senate to lead Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety for another four years, but he will do so amid numerous internal and external investigations into a recent riot at the Maui jail that took more than three hours to contain, and the fatal shootings of an Oahu jail inmate and homeless man outside the state Capitol.
The department is also under investigation by the FBI for falsifying information relating to inmate rapes, according to Sen. Roz Baker (D, West Maui-South Maui).
Espinda’s confirmation was far from assured after a Senate committee earlier this month recommended against it, citing those investigations, as well as a litany of other problems within the department including allegations from staff that leadership perpetuated a culture of fear and retaliation.
Senators ultimately voted 17-8 to confirm Espinda on Wednesday. His supporters argued that problems plaguing the Public Safety Department precede his term, that the department hasn’t received the financial support it needs from the state and that the public safety director position isn’t easy to fill.
“If not Nolan, who? There’s nobody that has the backbone,” said Sen. Kurt Fevella (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point), the lone Republican in the Senate, as he urged his colleagues to confirm Espinda.
But Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chairman of the Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, raised the issue of possible violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law aimed at stopping sexual assaults on inmates.
Nishihara (D, Waiphau-Pearl City) said that PREA “has been and continues to be violated with the tacit acquiescence of the director by the person put in charge of PREA compliance.”
“It has been reported that the data ensuring compliance is fraudulent or non- existent,” he told his Senate colleagues.
Baker, who also voted against Espinda’s confirmation, said that the FBI’s white-collar crimes division was investigating a complaint that the Public Safety Department had filed false information on a 2018 PREA audit report.
Senators listed other concerns they had with the department, including its failure to ensure that the Sheriffs Division obtained law enforcement accreditation known as CALEA. Espinda had told senators at his first confirmation hearing four years ago that the certification was his top priority. But when Nishihara looked into it, he found that the department hadn’t even begun the process by submitting an application.
Additional concerns were raised about the department mistakenly releasing some inmates and keeping others locked up beyond their release dates.
“This type of environment cannot and should not be allowed to continue. We cannot afford a continuation of the same leadership style,” said Nishihara. “What I am saying is that the current director is not the right person for the job of leading and managing this large and complex organization.”
Espinda, who watched from the gallery alongside Gov. David Ige, has spent more than three decades working in Hawaii’s correctional system, including serving as the warden of the Oahu Community Correctional Center and Halawa Correctional Facility.
The Public Safety Department oversees the state’s prisons and jails, as well as the state’s sheriffs and narcotics enforcement divisions.
Sen. Sharon Moriwaki (D, Kakaako-Moiliili-Waikiki), who voted in favor or Espinda’s confirmation with reservations, said she believes he will bring in reforms.
“I have a number of responses and information from the director that there will in fact be change and he has heard loudly and clearly the problems in the department, especially the lack of communication, the lack of support of employees, a lack of training, a lack of equipment,” said Moriwaki. “Some of that is on our shoulders for not providing the funding and the positions for him to do his job.”
Also, while senators were deliberating whether to reconfirm Espinda, a riot broke out at the Maui Community Correctional Center in March, causing more than $5.3 million in damage. The department initially downplayed it as a “disturbance.” Just days prior to that, a 47-year-old inmate at the Oahu Community Correctional Center was fatally shot while trying to escape in what Espinda acknowledged was a “major mistake.” And in February a sheriff’s deputy fatally shot a disabled homeless man at the state Capitol.
Those events made for a tough confirmation process, but there were other problems within the department that Nishihara spent weeks examining. Nishihara’s committee ultimately recommended earlier this month that the Senate not reconfirm Espinda.
On Wednesday, Nishihara reiterated many of his findings to his Senate colleagues.
He said that PSD’s Training and Staff Development administrator, Marte Martinez, had lied on her job application, claiming she had attended educational institutions that she had not and overstating her experience in public safety positions at sheriffs’ departments on the mainland. Nishihara said she was promoted by PSD supervisors and is now in charge of training the department’s guards and sheriffs.
“The sheriff that shot and killed the homeless individual in the rotunda just above us, was trained by this trainer,” Nishihara said. “She has neither the training or the certification to do this job.”
Nishihara said that the Public Safety Department tried to cover up the situation.
Toni Schwartz, a spokeswoman for DPS, didn’t respond to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s questions about alleged PREA violations or Martinez.
But Espinda vowed after his confirmation to address all of the issues brought up by senators.
“I want to express my gratitude to the larger body of the Senate for taking the time to question, critique and offer … suggestions towards making our department a better department over the next four years,” he said in a statement. “I have nothing but praise and credit for the Senate for their ability to remain fair and objective during the process and giving me every opportunity to address and answer any questions they had, and I look forward to continuing the progress established in the past four years and building on the successes going forward.”
Espinda also sent a letter on Monday to employees of the Public Safety Department promising that if reconfirmed he wouldn’t retaliate against any staff who spoke out against him.
“There is no place for retaliation at PSD,” he wrote, “and that is not who I am, and I firmly reject it.”