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Governor visits MCCC in wake of riot, escape

Recent incidents put spotlight on security, overcrowding at jail

Public officials, including Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino (second from left), Gov. David Ige, Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda and United Public Workers Union Director Dayton Nakanelua, inspect the Maui Community Correctional Center on Tuesday. Hawaii Department of Public Safety photo

WAILUKU — Gov. David Ige and Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda visited the Maui Community Correctional Center on Tuesday, a month after a riot that caused millions in damage and two days after a pair of inmates escaped a low-security dorm building.

Ige and Espinda toured MCCC along with Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino and Dayton Nakanelua, state director of the United Public Workers Union that represents the correctional staff.

While officials say the escape on Sunday was unrelated to the March 11 riot, it added to a growing list of problems at the jail.

“The incident at MCCC stemmed from long-standing conditions of overcrowding,” Ige said of the riot. “Director Espinda has expressed regularly, in all possible forums, his deep concern for the overcrowded conditions. Until the additional bed spaces, which are at various stages of progress, become reality, the state will continue to do all in its power and capability to operate safe, secure, clean and constitutionally compliant facilities.”

The officials surveyed the latest repairs and security updates and walked through the modules damaged in the riot.

Last week, wired security glass was installed in the control rooms of the two modules impacted by the riot. Individual cell windows facing the recreation field also have been replaced, and new glass windows have been installed in the cell doors. A fire and smoke mitigation team has removed most of the char, soot and burn marks and has applied fresh paint.

MCCC also is awaiting Mainland shipments of new security-grade storage room doors, replacement furniture for the common area, toilets and sinks in cells, tier showers and replacement fixtures.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee has passed a bill to cover the $5.3 million in emergency jail repairs, and another $8 million for next fiscal year to cover long-term security grade improvements.

“We are looking at accelerating the emergency repairs,” Ige said. “They’ve replaced broken windows and a number of things. We are expediting new doors and locks for most of the facility. We continue to look at ways to deal with the overcrowding, but that’s a more complicated challenge, as you know.”

As of the end of February, MCCC had 410 inmates in a facility with a capacity for 301. Espinda said the department has tried to reduce the population — in part by sending some of the riot participants to Oahu — and by the end of March, MCCC had 359 inmates. The department has said that MCCC has about 170 adult corrections officers.

The riot on March 11 started after 42 inmates from Module B refused to go back to their cells after recreational time was over. Inmates broke fire sprinklers and started a small fire in the common area that sent smoke drifting into the neighboring Module A, triggering a lesser disturbance.

Inmates have said in letters to and interviews with The Maui News that the overcrowded conditions, lack of mail service, poor food and broken phones pushed things to the breaking point.

Thirty-two inmates have since been transported to Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu for their roles in the riot.

Then, early Sunday morning, pretrial detainees Troy Diego and Barret “BJ” Paman fled MCCC, apparently breaking an emergency exit door and escaping over the jail’s barbed-wire fence. Both men later turned themselves in to police.

The dorm building where they were being housed was for community and minimum-custody inmates and did not have an electric alarm. Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said the broken door was repaired and reinforced Sunday, and that the jail is installing an alarm on the door. The dorm is scheduled to get new doors and upgrades to fixtures. Additional barbed wire also is being installed to the perimeter fence.

Schwartz said there was an armed guard outside the jail after the riot, but that the guard was focused on the modules where the riot took place. MCCC does not have a permanent armed presence, and Espinda said Tuesday that the department was not looking into providing one.

“An armed presence is not a reaction we would have to this minimum community custody escape,” Espinda said. “It was a response following that nasty riot that we had last month, but things have been relatively resolved. The security windows that were broken have been repaired, and we’re trying to get back to as much normal operations as possible.”

MCCC may have armed patrols around the facility when necessary, “as was the case following the escape,” Espinda said. And, officers are armed when transporting inmates or escorting them to the hospital, for example. MCCC has “less lethal weaponry available if the circumstances arise.”

When asked how an escape could occur so soon after the riot, Espinda said that Diego and Paman were in a low-security dorm and that the two recent incidents were not related.

“The riot that occurred is primarily due to overcrowding,” Espinda said. “This escape is from, like I said, a minimum security area. They simply left through the back door. We will redouble our efforts to make sure we house people appropriately.

“The basic premise in corrections is to house people in the least restrictive environment required by their circumstances, so we will be reviewing our evaluation and classification process to make sure we put people in the appropriate housing areas.”

The dorm has cameras both inside and out, and Espinda said the department would be reviewing the data from the cameras as well as investigating the security checks that officers are required to make.

Recent incidents, including the MCCC riot, have put Espinda’s position in jeopardy. On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs voted not to reconfirm him, and his appointment is pending a decision from the full Senate.

“I do continue to believe he’s the best person to be director of the Department of Public Safety,” Ige said Tuesday. “I think he’s done a good job in implementing changes in the system, reducing overtime, restoring visitation. We made progress in the certification of sheriffs.”

Ige said that overcrowding is a statewide problem, and that the state lacks the funding to alleviate the problem in all of its facilities. MCCC is currently awaiting the addition of a $7.5 million, 80-inmate module. Espinda said the project is in the plan-and-design phase, and that “if things work well,” the state could get through permitting as early as July.

“We don’t have a say as to who gets ordered to be in that jail facility,” Ige said. “Court makes decisions about bail for pretrial detainees, and then once someone is convicted, then the courts determine the sentences.

“We are required to house all of those that the court orders to that facility and that has been a challenge just because of the fact that it’s an old facility, and definitely, we have more inmates than it was designed for.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.