Hawaii Lawmakers Thwarted In Effort To Find Out About Prison Riot, DPS Shootings

Apr 10, 2019

File: State public safety director Nolan Espinda speaks Thursday, April 4, 2019, before the state Senate committee considering his continued tenure as head of the state Department of Public Safety.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Hawaii lawmakers tried Tuesday to get more information about the recent Maui prison riot and two fatal shootings involving the state Department of Public Safety.

But at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, Department of Public Safety head Nolan Espinda was directed by Gov. David Ige’s office to withhold information on the grounds that it may jeopardize ongoing investigations.

The Senate committee planned to question Espinda on details about the inmate riot at Maui Community Correctional Center last month, the fatal shooting of an Oahu Community Corrrectional inmate, and the death of a man at the state Capitol after a struggle with a deputy sheriff.

But the governor's chief of staff, Ford Fuchigami, shut down any disclosure of information about those events.

"The recent disturbance at Maui Community Correctional Center, the fatal shooting at the state Capitol grounds, and the fatal shooting outside Oʻahu Community Correctional Center, are subjects of ongoing criminal and administrative investigations. During today’s hearings we’ve advised Director Espinda not to disclose information regarding these events," Fuchigami said.

Lawmakers were frustrated with that directive.

"It’s kinda hard to talk about the elephant in the room without describing there’s an elephant in the room," said state Sen. Clarence Nishihara, public safety committee chair.

The prison riot, which resulted in major damage at the MCCC and the transfer of inmates to OCCC who were identified as taking part in the disturbance, was caused by overcrowding, Espinda said following the event. 

The riot and shootings are the latest in a series of events that have clouded Espinda’s tenure as head of the department.

During Tuesday's committee hearing, Espinda did respond to questions about MCCC staffing from Maui Sen. Roz Baker. Baker said it was her understanding that the department has been "systematically reducing the staffing at MCCC to save money."

Espinda denied such was the case.

"We have not in any way, at any time, limited the institutionʻs ability to fill those positions. We have not instructed or otherwise prohibited the recruitment and filling of those positions to save money," he said.

Espinda is up for a confirmation vote before the public safety committee  on Thursday starting at 1:15 p.m.

A decision on whether to recommend that Espinda continue as department head was put off last week, although the committee heard from his supporters and opponents.