For inmates at the Maui Community Correctional Center, it’s not unusual to be crammed four to a cell, leaving two to sleep on the floor while trying to keep their head away from the toilet. Guards at the Wailuku jail say many of the inmates spend about 19 hours a day like that, locked in 92-square-foot cells with little room to move around.
That was the situation for nearly all of the occupants of modules A and B when a riot broke out at MCCC March 11, when inmates started a fire, smashed furniture and fire sprinklers and destroyed toilets and sinks during an uprising that took three hours to contain.
Officials at the Department of Public Safety, which oversees Hawaii’s prison and jail system, and inmates alike have said severe overcrowding, along with broken telephones and sporadic mail delivery, provoked the riot. Last week, Gov. David Ige signed a bill appropriating $5.1 million to repair damage from the riot, while the Legislature allocated an additional $8 million for longer-term security fixes and upgrades at the Maui jail.
Still, overcrowding at MCCC has persisted for years, and there seems to be little urgency among political leaders to deal with what some corrections officers have described to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser as a crisis situation.
The facility was built in 1978 to hold just 209 inmates. As the inmate population grew, it was reconfigured to make room for 301 beds. In recent months, the headcount has reached as high as 500 inmates, according to Department of Public Safety figures. When the riot broke out in March, there were 410 inmates at the jail.
Current plans to expand the facility are insufficient to accommodate recent population levels and the extra housing isn’t supposed to be completed for another two years. A decade-old plan to rebuild the jail in Puunene may have new life, but officials with the Department of Public Safety couldn’t give a target date of when that might happen, and Maui County officials say they haven’t been briefed on the plan.
Meanwhile, corrections officers say conditions at the jail aren’t safe, especially with fewer personnel showing up to work after the riot.
As the MCCC population has grown over the years, one guard told the Star-Advertiser it’s harder to identify inmates who have behavioral problems or may pose a threat to others.
“You can’t point them out like you used to when there used to be 60 people in the module,” said the corrections officer, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by management. “I would know everybody’s name and their family, what they are here for, how long they would be here. But now you have 100 people and they rotate in and out. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know what happened to them. We don’t know their personalities.
“These guards are working 16 hour days. They’re tired,” he said. “The inmates are frustrated and we can’t single out a person having an emotional crisis compared to those who are outwardly violent to other inmates and staff.”
He said conditions are particularly dangerous for transgender inmates who are at high risk for being physically or sexually assaulted.
“We have no special holding for them, so they will be put into general population,” he said. “So now they are going to be a target.”
A Department of Public Safety spokeswoman didn’t respond to a question about whether this was indeed the case.
Hawaii’s jails, which are distinct from its prisons, house pre-trial detainees, those serving shorter sentences and some felons who are close to release.
Overcrowding at Hawaii jails by on Scribd
In addition to a lack of beds, a 2003 report laying out a 10-year master plan for Hawaii’s corrections system detailed inadequate space for the Maui jail’s administrative and operational needs and program services for inmates.
In 2008 former Gov. Linda Lingle released millions in funding to design a new facility at a 40-acre site in Puunene in Central Maui that was projected to be completed by 2012. While the state spent close to $14 million on consultants and design and engineering services, the project never broke ground.
Former Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa, who took office for a second time in 2011, and his administration had multiple concerns about the proposed location, according to Maui County Planning Director Michele McLean. She said the site was located off Mokulele Highway within clear view of visitors and residents traveling between Kahului Airport and the South Maui resort area. In addition, it lacked infrastructure and was farther from circuit court, attorneys’ offices and support services in the Wailuku civic center.
Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said infrastructure costs also sidelined the Maui jail relocation. “At the time, there was no infrastructure planning, design and construction assignment made and agreed upon amongst all participating parties,” she said by email.
After Ige became governor in 2014, he turned his attention to relocating the Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi to Halawa, at which point plans for a new Maui jail looked pretty much dead.
The Oahu jail is also overcrowded and along the path of the Honolulu rail line, making it a highly desirable area for developers. Ige had hoped to fast-track its relocation by exempting it from the environmental review process, but the Legislature rejected that idea in 2016 and has been reluctant to approve construction funding. Ige has been looking at options to finance the project, estimated to cost $525 million.
Years of delays
The Legislature did appropriate $7.5 million to the Department of Public Safety in 2016 to expand the Maui jail, plus $30 million to expand overcrowded jails on Hawaii island and Kauai. The funding was supposed to serve as a stop-gap, further postponing construction of new facilities.
But the expansion plans have moved slowly. New housing isn’t supposed to be completed until 2021. On Maui, officials are planning to add only 80 new beds, significantly less than what is needed based on past population levels.
Criminal justice advocates for years have tried to implement reforms to reduce the inmate population, arguing for bail reform, lighter sentencing and more substance abuse treatment. While the Legislature passed bail reform measures this year, it remains to be seen if they will have any significant affect on inmate population levels.
There are recent signs that plans to relocate the Maui jail may be revived. The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands says it has money from the state to move forward on installing infrastructure in an area near the proposed Puunene site where a homestead development is planned.
Mayor Michael Victorino, who took office in January, also has been more open to the idea, saying he would like to see the overcrowded jail moved from its current site, which is boxed in by Waiale Road to the west, a water reservoir to the east, a homeless shelter and transitional housing to the south and a cemetery to the north. It’s also surrounded by growing residential and commercial development.
However, Schwartz couldn’t give a new timeline for relocating the Maui jail, and McLean said state public safety officials hadn’t communicated with county planning officials about the project in years.
Overcrowding and dilapidated conditions extend throughout the state’s jails. Last year, for instance, the Hawaii Community Correctional Center had nearly 400 inmates but just 226 beds. It’s not a situation the Department of Public Safety has tried to hide in recent years.
In 2016 while seeking more funding at the Legislature, Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda warned lawmakers that a failure to address the problem could result in federal intervention.
“The Oahu, Kauai, Maui and Hawaii community correctional centers are grossly overcrowded,” Espinda said at the time. “Conditions created by overcrowding place the citizens and elected officials of Hawaii under a cloud of liability that could threaten continued autonomous control and supervision of the jails throughout the state.”
The situation is reminiscent of the 1980s when the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state over unconstitutional conditions at OCCC and the Hawaii Women’s Correctional Center in Kailua, resulting in a consent decree that was in effect until 1999 and required major improvements.
“The overcrowding overtaxes virtually every constitutionally required support system and service and creates a harmful and intolerable environment,” according to the 1984 complaint.
Retired state appeals court judge Dan Foley, who was legal director of Hawaii’s ACLU when the complaint was filed, said it took a federal lawsuit and court order to spur reforms. He said that afterward, political leaders, including former Gov. John Waihee, came together to support improvements at Hawaii’s jails and prisons.
Foley said he hasn’t seen the same political will to tackle such problems in recent years.
“There has been a lack of leadership, from the governor’s office and in the Legislature both,” he said. “We had it once and we haven’t had it since.”