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MCCC staff were ‘scared for our lives’

Letter describes chaos during March 11 riot

Inmates broke fire sprinklers and started a fire in the common area of a module at Maui Community Correctional Center in Wailuku on March 11. Significant damage was reported to two modules. Department of Public Safety photo

Letter from MCCC staff

Maui Community Correctional Center staff said they were “scared for our lives” during the March 11 riot at the Wailuku jail as inmates set fires and “attempted to burn officers alive in the control boxes” and damaged their cells and modules.

A letter received by The Maui News on Friday signed “the staff at M.C.C.C.” described the riot that drew a large police and fire presence. The Maui News confirmed the identities of some of the letter writers as jail staff, who sought to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation and losing their jobs.

“We took down unruly inmates, securing and extracting them one at a time. Officers that attempted to carry out and save injured inmates were being assaulted in the process,” the letter said. “Through the use of sheer physical force, less than lethal weapons and teamwork, we were able to regain control, quell and finally suppress the riots over a period of eight hours.”

The letter said inmates set fires throughout the modules, burning mattresses, plastic chairs, wooden tables, linens, blankets, sheets, uniforms, toilet paper, trash and cleaning chemicals.

Maui police officers monitor the perimeter of Maui Community Correctional Center at around 3 p.m. on March 11. Police were responding to what was initially described as a “disturbance” and a small fire started by inmates in a module. The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

“They even attempted to burn officers alive in the control boxes, forcing them to evacuate. Inmates were assaulting other inmates while toxic smoke and severe flooding were filling the modules,” the letter said.

The Department of Public Safety’s account of the riot is that 42 inmates from Module B refused to leave a common area to return to their cells when recreational time was over at about 3 p.m. It said that inmates broke fire sprinklers and started a small fire in the common area, with smoke drifting to an adjacent module, where inmates started a lesser disturbance.

The situation was declared contained at about 6:30 p.m., the department said. There was significant damage to two modules; two inmate injuries initially were reported. Thirty-two inmates have been sent to Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu for their roles in the riot.

Inmates were returned to “fully or partially operational” cells, the department said. Individual toilets and sinks in some cells and tier showers were destroyed, and alternate unrestricted toilet and restricted shower access is being provided.

Inmate out-of-cell time is restricted to one-hour increments, three cells at a time, the department said.

Emergency repairs are estimated to cost $5.3 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and another $8 million next fiscal year for long-term security improvements, said Public Safety Department spokeswoman Toni Schwartz on Monday.

The completed or ongoing repairs include new fire sprinklers, control room security glass windows, cell windows and televisions and cleaning char and soot off walls, she said. Storage room doors, common area furniture, toilets and sink fixtures are on order.

As repair work goes on, the United Public Workers union, which represents the adult corrections officers at Maui Community Correctional Center, filed a class-action grievance against the state March 18. It seeks remedies, including temporary hazard pay, overtime and safe working conditions.

“Due to the riot, hazardous working conditions for members were exacerbated and continues,” the union said.

The grievance said there was a shortage of safety equipment, such as riot and fire protective gear, pepper spray and ammunition.

“Additionally, the severe staff shortage combined with overpopulation of the facility, staff-to-inmate ratios and the deterioration and breakdown of the facility and equipment critical to the safety and health of inmates, employees and the public caused extreme hazardous working conditions to increase,” the grievance said.

The authors of the letter concur, saying that the jail is “inhumane, uninhabitable (with a) life-threatening environment” as state Public Safety Department and supervisors carry on with “business as usual.”

Since the March 11 incident, there have been “constant inmate uprisings and rebellions, so much so, that the presence of lethal force has been necessary to maintain control and order,” said the letter.

“Inmates are being forced to live in these conditions, and we’re being forced to work in these conditions with no protective gear,” the letter said. “No abatement process have been carried out, and the air in the modules contain life-threatening particles due to the burning of hazardous material and toxic chemicals.”

The letter says 214 inmates and four modules were involved in the riot.

Jail workers blame the department and the state, citing poor facilities, lack of manpower, incompetent leadership, insufficient riot training and growing inmate tension that boiled into the riot.

Despite their fears that day, the jail workers say they “still performed our job duties to the best of our abilities.”

In response to the letter from MCCC staff, Schwartz said: “The comments contained in the provided letter portray trauma that we are all working through at this time. There absolutely has not been, nor will there be, any retaliatory actions heaped upon an already embattled group of employees. These employees continuously work under the most difficult of conditions and are commended and not condemned or second-guessed, for their continued dedication and professionalism during this period of recovery.

“At present time, MCCC is making every effort to return to full normal operation. We understand the concerns of staff who have had to deal with the overcrowded and outdated infrastructure of an old jail for many years.”

Schwartz said that “all damage to the facility is a priority to be replaced or repaired.” And projects are in the planning process to ease overcrowding: last summer, the department announced planning for an 80-inmate module on the MCCC grounds.

The department has regularly expressed “in all possible forums our deep concerns for the admitted overcrowding conditions in our jails across the state . . . (and) will continue to do all in its power and capability to continue to operate safe, secure, clean and constitutionally compliant facilities across the state,” she said.

Shortly after the riot, the state said there were around 400 inmates at MCCC. It has the capacity for 301 inmates. There are about 170 adult correctional officers assigned to the Maui jail, which houses pretrial detainees, inmates on short-term sentences and prison inmates nearing their release.

There are only about 116 guards actively working, jail workers said.

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