Maui Time

UPDATED: Inmate frustrations boil over at Maui Community Correctional Center

[NOTE: This story has been updated to include information on why work to replace some of the prison’s broken emergency exit doors, which was to have happened by Mar. 30 of this year, still hasn’t taken place.] 

Everyone in Hawaii who even glances at the news knows that Maui Community Correctional Center (MCCC) is a powder keg. It’s been overcrowded for many years, and right now more than 400 inmates live in a space updated to hold just 301. What’s more, the prison itself isn’t in the best of shape.

Back in September we reported that the prison’s fire control system has been a mess for years–and won’t be completely fixed at least until the end of this year. Some of the prison’s emergency exits doors are also busted. They were supposed to be fixed by the end of March, but that didn’t happen.

The completion date is currently being revised from the original date due to unforeseen delays caused by one of the subcontractors ceasing operations in 2017,” said Cathy Yasuda, an aide to the state Comptroller, in an Apr. 12 email. “A replacement contractor was approved recently and verification procedures are underway. We expect to have a firm completion date when all reviews and verification procedures are completed, which may take several weeks.”

But the prison’s problems go beyond even that. This sounds amazing, but more than a dozen locks within MCCC’s modules simply don’t work properly anymore. “There are 15 locks that require manual operation,” Toni Schwartz, Hawaii Department of Public Safety’s public information officer, said in an Apr. 11 email. “The repairing and replacing of these locks is being addressed.”

Living in such an environment can be bad enough, but when new problems start cropping up involving inmates’ phone, television and food, tensions can boil over. That seems to be what happened at the prison’s Module A on the afternoon of Monday, Apr. 9. I first heard of the situation–which involved a large number of inmates participating in more of a sit-in than a full-blown riot–that night, but wasn’t able to confirm its particulars until today.

“Monday at about 2pm, inmates in Module A at the Maui Community Correctional Center were told to go to their cells for a headcount,” Schwartz told me. “The inmates refused the order and said they wanted to express their frustration with the phone system, a damaged television in the common area of their module, and the absence of rice with some of their meals over the past few days.”

The phone situation seems to have been a particular issue with the inmates. “The MCCC inmate phone system was transitioning to a new vendor over the past week,” Schwartz said. “The phones were not off during this time, but the cutover caused a software issue that was immediately corrected. Inmates are able to use the phones at their designated phone use times.”

Schwatz said that the incident last about 45 minutes, and the prison’s guards were able to defuse the situation “by assuring the inmates that remedies were already in the works.” She added that inmates “quietly went into their cells,” and guards did not use force during the incident.

“Security staff maintained control the entire time,” said Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda, in response to my inquiry. “The situation did not escalate because staff handled it exactly how they were trained to do. They talked to the inmates, heard their concerns, and handled the situation in an appropriate and professional manner.”

That all may be true, but Schwartz also said that prison officials did call the Maui Police Department during the incident, though they didn’t deploy into the prison.

“Security staff maintained control the entire time and resolved the situation,” Schwartz said. “Maui Police were called to report the disturbance, as is procedure, but were notified that the situation was under control and their assistance was not required.”

In any case, Schwartz said that seven inmates face possible misconduct charges for their part in the demonstration. Charges will include inciting a disturbance, interfering with the performance of a correctional officer and threatening a correctional officer. Schwartz added that DPS officials are conducting an internal investigation, and more charges may be filed against additional inmates.

Photo of MCCC: MauiTime