By Chris Sugidono; The Maui News; February 1, 2017
WAILUKU — An empty bunk bed and two mattresses lying side by side on the floor — only steps away from the toilet — is a common sight in Maui Community Correctional Center cells originally designed for two inmates.
Four large men later returned to their cramped 13-by-8-foot cell. MCCC is consistently the most overcrowded in the state and has more than twice the number of prisoners it was designed to hold, according to the ACLU of Hawaii.
“We’re going to work it for as long as we have to,” Maj. Deborah Taylor, chief of security, said during a media tour through the 7-acre facility Tuesday. “We have to try to find ways to make it work. If we get more bunks, we get more bunks.”
MCCC held 447 inmates Tuesday, 214 percent more than its designed capacity of 209. State Department of Public Safety officials say the percentage is lower, about 150 percent, based on an operating capacity of 301 inmates.
Overcrowding has been a problem for more than a decade, and Public Safety Department officials are pleading for more money to expand bed space or build a new Maui facility. Civil rights groups and the county public defender’s office are asking for judicial reforms that might free more pretrial detainees, who make up more than half the jail’s population.
The ACLU of Hawaii filed a complaint last month with the U.S. Justice Department over the overcrowded conditions in Hawaii’s prisons. Legal Director Mateo Caballero said Tuesday that the ACLU has not received a response yet and explained that the complaint may take a little longer than usual to process because of the change of presidents.
“Our perspective is the conditions themselves have not improved,” Caballero said. “They have either stayed the same or deteriorated over time as the facility ages.”
About half of the inmates are awaiting trial and could not post bail. They are forced to live in the cramped cells with their shoes under the sink and belongings on sparse shelf space or stuffed in storage containers with belongings of their three other cellmates.
“The real problem is bails are set so high, so there’re so many pretrial detainees. That’s really it,” said Wendy Hudson, supervising attorney for the public defender’s office.“Indigents can’t even afford something low like $1,000 bail. It’s frightening, really.”
Guards and staff, whose numbers are less than half that of inmates, have had to adjust to the overcrowded conditions and warned of possible unruly inmates during the tour. Inmates and their families have claimed that the overcrowded conditions and a food shortage created tensions that led to inmate protests in 2015.
The jail faced another issue last month when the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations received notice of safety hazards, including offline smoke detectors, inoperable or blocked emergency exit doors and walkways and steps with rotting wood, protruding nails and loose boards. The complaint appears to have been filed by jail staff.
In a Jan. 19 letter, Taylor said that several issues already have been remedied but others will require capital improvement funding. Smoke detectors inside three modules and the laundry room were scheduled to be replaced by Tuesday and upgrades of the fire safety panel were in the works, the letter said.
As far as the inoperable emergency exit doors to the recreation yard from four modules, public safety officials said that there are other fire exits for inmates and staff and that door replacement and upgrades are scheduled to start late this year.
Walkways and steps are scheduled to be repaired by Feb. 15. In the interim, the jail said it would rope off a section of walkway.
MCCC facilities have deteriorated since it opened as a state jail in 1976. One dormitory predates the jail’s transfer from the county to the state, and the last expansion occurred in 1994.
In 2001 and 2005, cellblocks were reconfigured to accommodate the Maui Drug Court program and to separate participants from the general inmate population. But female Drug Court inmates are forced to bunk with the general population due to lack of space.
Drug Court counsellor Nicha Stenberg-Johnson said the overcrowding prevents holding programs inside the dorm like they do for the men. The 12 women are forced to use a separate room for rehabilitation, but even that is not always an option.
“Sometimes, we have to squeeze them in my office if the room is being used,” Stenberg-Johnson said, pointing to her cramped office, about half the size of a jail cell.
Counselor Armon Tavares said inmates enter the Drug Court program “enthusiastic and with good attitudes.” He said the program capacity is for 20 men, which is strictly maintained due to the overcrowded conditions.
A commissary, or “store-order,” does help to lift spirits at the jail and dozens of brown paper bags were stored in guard offices inside the women’s dormitory. The most popular items are ramen noodles (beef, chicken and shrimp in that order), Oreos, Snickers and Twix.
Chaplain Derek Smith said the overcrowding does wear on some inmates, particularly during Christmastime, but he has seen a lot of growth in spite of conditions. He said a church donated Bibles to the jail, and inmates have held Bible study classes in their small cells.
“There’s just a few of them knuckleheads, but it probably pushes them closer to God,”Smith said.
Smith commended the guards, who are overworked and understaffed, and was grateful to Taylor and Warden James Hirano for supporting his efforts.
“I’ve been to a few prisons, and the staff here is exceptional,” he said. “You don’t have many bad guys. These guys really care about the inmates.”
MCCC is adequately staffed, but operations do “take a little longer” due to the number of inmates, Taylor said.
“Staff just needs to be more diligent and aware,” she said.
Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said Hawaii’s prison system is at the mercy of legislative funding. She said the obvious need for Maui would be for more bed space or a new facility.
“We have to make do with what we get from the Legislature,” Schwartz said.
When asked if the Maui jail can continue to handle more inmates, Schwartz said: “We don’t make the decision on their sentencing, we just find a way to make room for them.”
A statewide task force is forming to look at reforming the bail system to reduce the number of pretrial detainees as a way to reduce overcrowding, Hudson said. Studies show that the vast majority of people released on bail appear for their court hearings.
“If the bails are lower there’s going to be less people in custody,” she said. “That’s an easy fix.”
Hudson said Maui County bail amounts are “ridiculously high” compared to the rest of the state. She said Oahu may set $100,000 bail on a murder charge, whereas Maui judges could set bail at $300,000 to $400,000 on a first-degree sexual assault charge.
Hudson said all of her clients complain about the conditions in the jail, which lacks 24-hour medical staff or a psychiatrist. She said many mentally ill inmates are sent to Oahu or remain in MCCC without proper support.
Hudson opposed the building of a new jail; she would rather see the money go toward housing for homeless people, mental health services, Drug Court counselors and outreach programs. She said 90 percent of the cases are drug-related.
“It’s not like crime is so much worse than what it was, it’s the practices around it that have changed,” she said. “We need to focus on the rehabilitation part, and if the bails were lower, people would be out of jail.”
State Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, who chairs the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, said Tuesday that a “perfect world” would have more programs and enough money for a new jail. He said cost estimates of a new jail range from around $200 million to $300 million, almost double what the county receives for all capital improvement projects.
“If people are going to choose between building schools or more prisons, I’ll tell you it’s unlikely the prison will get the money given the cost,” Keith-Agaran said.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.