Nolan Espinda reconfirmed as Public Safety director

Espinda has come under fire recently for incidents like the MCCC riot

The state Senate on Wednesday reconfirmed Nolan Espinda as Public Safety director in a 17-8 vote amidst recent high-profile incidents at state public safety facilities, including a riot at the Maui Community Correctional Center last month.

Espinda, whose new term expires in 2022, had faced criticism over the Maui riot on March 11 as inmates caused more than $5 million in damages. Inmates said they were upset over issues that included overcrowding, nonworking phones and poor food. Then on April 14, another high-profile incident occurred as two inmates escaped from a low-security dorm building at MCCC, but later turned themselves in.

Recently the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs voted to not recommend that Espinda return as head of the department.

In a letter on Monday, sent to “all employees” at the Public Safety Department, Espinda referenced how some MCCC employees have expressed concerns over working conditions and their fear of retaliation for bringing those concerns forward.

Jail workers complained in a letter last month about various issues at the jail, including not having proper protective gear during and after the riot, as well as still working in hazardous conditions after fires were set during the riots.

But Espinda reiterated in the Monday letter that there will be no retaliation and that the jail workers “are to be commended and not second-guessed for their continued commitment and professionalism.”

Through the confirmation process, Espinda said in the letter that he has been given some constructive criticism that he has taken to heart. From this, he outlined some goals in his letter to employees.

Espinda said he has requested funds to move forward with continued training and acquisition of less-lethal devices to provide options for sheriffs and adult corrections officers. Since fiscal year 2017, Espinda has requested, but has not been successful in securing, funding for this effort, but hopes in light of recent events that funding comes through.

Espinda added that he had expressed his concerns publicly and to decision-makers regarding overcrowding statewide. He noted various funding appropriated by the Legislature in 2016, including $7.5 million for MCCC for additional housing.

“These projects are currently in progress, but much more needs to be done,” he said in the letter.

He also noted the ongoing emergency jail repair and plans to cover long-term security grade improvements at MCCC.

Espinda, Gov. David Ige, United Public Workers State Director Dayton Nakanelua and other officials visited MCCC last week to view the repair work ongoing at the jail.

MCCC workers, who said they are still afraid of identifying themselves because of retaliation and being fired, issued a letter after the April 16 visit, calling it “a disgraceful publicity stunt in a last-ditch effort to save Director Espinda’s job.”

The workers felt that Espinda is “unfit to lead” the department and “continues to fail at addressing issues of safety and security at MCCC.”

Workers said the state is slow to get things back on track since the riots two months ago.

“We are overworked, understaffed, still lack proper riot training and equipment. Riot conditions are ever present as damages from the initial riot have not been fully repaired. Instead of being proactive we continue to operate under a ‘business as usual’ status.”

Ige expressed his continued support for Espinda on the day of the visit, saying that he had “done a good job implementing changes in the system, reducing overtime, restoring visitation” and making progress in the certification of sheriffs.

“I do continue to believe he’s the best person to be director of the Department of Public Safety,” Ige said at the time.

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

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