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Hawaii Prisoners Rebel Over Prison Conditions, Fined For Damages

by Kevin Bliss

Prisoners of the Maui Community Correctional Center (MCCC) rioted March 11, 2019, over unstable, inhumane and unconstitutional living conditions. Complaints about broken telephones, uncollected mail, overcrowding, shortened visits and other problems resulted in prisoners from two modules destroying showers and toilets, setting living areas on fire, and breaking windows, sprinkler systems, and other dormitory fixtures causing a total of $5.3 million in damages.

The facility was at 137% capacity, understaffed by 22%, and had 59% of the remaining staff on some form of administrative leave.

An investigation conducted by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) found that extreme overcrowding was the cause of the riot, which started when prisoners one day found that every phone in the facility was not functioning.

During the joint Senate Ways and Means and Public Safety committees’ informational meeting at UH-Maui College, DPS Director Nolan Espinda said that if the phones had been operational, “we may not have faced the situation we did.” He also stated the cells in Module B that were designed to hold two people were holding four, and that understaffing cost the state $1.95 million in overtime for the 2018 fiscal year alone.

State Senator Glenn Wakai questioned why MCCC did not have any cameras installed in the facility. “To have inner areas of a prison to have no cameras in this day and age is just ridiculous,” he said. 

Moreover, Espinda told the committee that the memory card for the handheld camera could not be located. He said it was possible that it was never placed in the camera to begin with so no footage was captured of the guards entering the modules to quell the riot.

In October, the state financially sanctioned 18 prisoners over the riot. They were fined either $1,358 or $2,716, according to their participation in the destruction. After the incident, 36 prisoners were moved to Halawa Correctional Facility in Oahu. Some have been returned to “partially repaired” cells in the two modules.

Attorneys representing the prisoners are concerned about prolonged delays in medical care of injuries received during the riot, court appearance challenges for those now housed off-site, and the legality of DPS delegated sanctions not authorized by statute.

ACLU Executive Director Josh Wisch said, “Generally speaking, before an agency can levy sanctions like this and collect especially monetary sanctions like this, there usually has to be a specific delegation of that authority from the legislature, and it doesn’t appear that kind of a delegation was ever really made here.” 



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