MCCC guard still recovering from inmate attack

Public safety maintains its undisclosed policies sound

A guard at Maui Community Correctional Center still is recuperating from an alleged attack by an inmate in October. This photo of the jail in Wailuku was taken in January 2017. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A Maui Community Correctional Center guard still is recuperating from head and facial injuries after being kicked and punched by an inmate in October, as the state Department of Public Safety says its practices to prevent assaults on guards at the facility “are sound.”

On Oct. 27, Bert Sam Fong, an adult corrections officer III, allegedly was kicked and punched more than 10 to 15 times by inmate Dallas Nakoa-Kaauamo at the Wailuku jail, according to Public Safety Department reports on the incident provided to The Maui News.

Sam Fong called the inmate into a sally port to inform him about the policy regarding pencils and how they needed to be returned. The inmate disagreed and didn’t accept Sam Fong’s explanation and got agitated, the reports said.

Sam Fong was backing against the control door and verbally asked another guard to release the control door. Seeing the inmate was attacking Sam Fong, the other guard came in to assist, the reports said.

“During this period I was kicked and punched over 10-15 times by inmate. Mostly moderate and indirect kicks,” the 74-year-old Sam Fong said in the reports. “I kept verbally telling inmate that I was not and had no intention of fighting. Which at no time did I retaliate or touch inmate except to block and move.”

“Inmate landed some kicks on my left face area and right face area. Opening a gash near my right cheek area,” Sam Fong said in the reports.

As a result of the assault, Sam Fong has had two brain surgeries, according those close to the case and who were not allowed to speak about it.

Sam Fong declined comment on the matter. An official with the United Public Workers Union, which represents the adult corrections officers, could not be reached for comment.

Toni Schwartz, public information officer for the Public Safety Department, did not identify the guard involved in the attack, the injuries or leave status, saying the department could not release personal confidential information.

She did acknowledge that a guard was allegedly assaulted by Nakoa-Kaauamo. Schwartz said a criminal assault charge is pending with the Maui Police Department.

According to eCourt Kokua, the state Judiciary’s information management system, Nakoa-Kaauamo does not have any cases filed against him in 2018, the year the alleged assault took place.

“We are confident that our practices are sound. . . . based on proven practice, in effect to do everything we can to prevent assaults from occurring,” she said in an email earlier this week. “Our policies are routinely evaluated, and training is ongoing with all our staff on crisis intervention, conflict resolution and de-escalation tactics, officer safety and assault prevention.”

Nakoa-Kaauamo is a 22-year-old pretrial felon who entered MCCC about a year ago, according to jail reports. He is charged with unauthorized entry into a motor vehicle, fourth-degree theft, unauthorized use of a credit card, unauthorized control of a propelled vehicle and second-degree theft.

This attack of the guard at the jail comes in the wake of reports of overcrowding and safety violations at MCCC, which opened as a state facility in 1976. The department was fined twice last year by the state labor department’s Occupational Safety and Health Division.

In July, a $16,300 fine was levied for not testing a fire alarm panel and for an either deactivated or turned-off fire alarm panel. The penalties were later reduced to $8,150.

Then in August, the department was fined $37,490 for inoperable doors, dormitory stairways in disrepair and a fire alarm system that had not been totally operational for years at the Maui jail. The department settled for $22,820 on three of five violations with the other two waived.

The Public Safety Department said that inmates were not at risk and issues with the fire alarm system had no impact on the fire suppression system throughout the facility. The fire alarm issues were to be addressed.

The facility also has been dealing with overcrowding. In 2017, the ACLU of Hawaii Foundation filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, citing overcrowding in Hawaii prisons, including MCCC. The ACLU said that the prison population was more than double the designed bed capacity for the Wailuku jail in 2016.

Following the latest assault incident, two guards, who wished to remain anonymous because of nondisclosure clauses in their contracts, said that they have asked for more protection, such as pepper spray, as a possible deterrent against inmates wanting to get physical. The guards said they do not want firearms because they are too dangerous and want to deter violence without injury, including to inmates.

Schwartz said that weapons are not allowed inside any correctional institution.

“Allowing weapons in a close proximity to inmates creates a safety and security situation where inmates could gain access to these weapons,” she said.

Adult corrections officers are trained to manage an inmate through a gradual process that begins with verbal communication techniques meant to de-escalate the situation without force and to allow the inmate to voluntarily comply, she said.

If there is no compliance, officers employ control techniques, such as use of pressure points and other defensive techniques, to gain compliance.

Higher levels of force, involving the use of nonlethal weapons, include the deployment of the Corrections Emergency Response Team, which must be approved by the watch commander, Schwartz said.

The state’s use-of-force policy and weapons/security equipment are confidential, she said.

The guards say that the physical tactics are outdated and that they are forced to use their bodies to deal with inmates if they do not comply.

“This is the 21st century, we have family we want to go home to. We don’t come to work to fight,” said one of the guards.

The guards say that they do training with batons and pepper spray — but are not provided those items. They said that sheriffs who transport inmates to and from the jail to the courts, have batons, pepper spray — and guns.

“The department has known for years, we need some kind of protective equipment,” one of the guards said.

He added that if guards try to break up a fight, the inmates know the guards do not have weapons and therefore have no incentive to stop.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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