Nolan Espinda, the governor’s nominee to run Hawaii’s prisons and the State Sheriff Division has been on the job only six weeks but already he’s churned up the ire of shadow critics, whom I consider cowardly. They have been sending the same anonymous email to the governor, state senators and news reporters.
Under the nom de plume “Concerned PSD Employees,” they have also sent emails in the past to blast former Public Safety Director Ted Sakai.
Since we don’t know the names of the critics — maybe it’s just one person — it is difficult figure out his or her or their motivation.
Sen. Rosalyn Baker says, “To try to do character assassination under the cloak of anonymity is wrong. We have no opportunity to vet the criticism, no one to whom to ask questions. It is character assassination without any kind of accountability.”
Baker is vice-chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, which will oversee Espinda’s confirmation hearing. She says she deletes such anonymous emails.
Maybe the anonymous critics are mad because Espinda is trying to change the culture of corruption in Hawaii’s prisons.
Most of Hawaii’s 1,300 prison guards are hard-working professionals, but state prison operations have been hindered for decades by a dedicated bunch of bad actors.
They are the prison guards who regularly call in sick when they are perfectly healthy. Their absences require the inmates’ family visits to be cancelled.
And they cost taxpayers money. Other corrections officers have to be brought in cover the “sick” guards’ shifts, costing millions of dollars in overtime pay.
Since Espinda took over the job Jan. 2, there are been no cancellations of family visit days due to “sick outs” at Oahu prisons, not even on Super Bowl Sunday.
“I really believe the inmates expect certain things of us as their caretakers.” — Nolan Espinda, DPS Director
In an interview Friday, Espinda said it’s a continuing challenge and in no way can he say the problem is solved.
“We are not able to blow a horn yet. It is too early in the process,” he says. “Essentially, I am changing the standard, raising the expectation. Everyone needs to understand the significance of family visits to the inmates. They are an important part of an inmate’s rehabilitation.”
Espinda has enlisted help of the wardens of the state’s eight prisons to come up with solutions. He has been a warden himself at three different Oahu prisons: Waiawa, Oahu Community Correctional Center, and Halawa Prison, where he was the warden for the last six years.
“He knows the business. He knows how to make it work, “ says Martha Torney, who recently retired as Public Safety’s deputy director for administration.
As Public Safety director, Espinda calls himself “the 9th warden.” He is a hands-on manager who knows how to speak to the other wardens.
“If they know there are going to be days when there might be a staffing shortage, I have asked them to come up with a contingency plan to make the visits happen,” says Espinda.
With Espinda, it is all about planning ahead. “I have always believed that failing to plan is planning to fail,” he says.
Some solutions under discussion by wardens to keep visiting days include briefly locking down some parts of a prison, or changing the visiting days to alternate days such as Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Sunday.
“They are being asked to think outside of the box,” says prisons spokeswoman Toni Schwartz.
Espinda says he has put out a letter statewide to ask retired corrections officers to come in to work when staffing shortages are anticipated.
Espinda says, “Family visits need to be integrated into the routine. Not just when we want the visits to occur, but because they must occur as regularly scheduled.”
He says it takes a toll on the inmates when they find out family visiting days will be cancelled.
“I really believe the inmates expect certain things of us as their caretakers. Without visits from family, they lose hope. They lose faith, they become disappointed. The inmates’ bad behavior that follows is predictable. It’s a reflection of their disappointment in us.”
When he was warden at Halawa, the facility did not have the severe absentee problem of many of the other facilities.
Espinda says he is also urging the wardens to be very aggressive in curbing overtime. He says watch commanders need to be asked to monitor overtime daily, to make sure all positions are filled and to keep track when someone is taking a lot of leave and then ask the chronically-absent corrections officer what’s wrong and when he or she is coming back to work.
Espinda says watch commanders are also being asked to urge corrections officers to consider trading shifts with another officers when they have an event they want to attend so they don’t feel like they have to call in sick at the last minute.
Under his leadership as warden, Halawa prison has consistently led the state prisons system for the lowest percentage of overtime.
Last year, Halawa’s overtime costs were $826,334 or 4.7 percent of the total salary budget. At OCCC, overtime was 17 percent of the salary budget and at Hawaii Community Correctional Center on the Big Island, overtime was 23 percent of the salary budget.
Espinda says it is easier to curb overtime at Halawa than OCCC because OCCC has much higher staffing demands to guard the old fashioned, spread -out facility. Halawa has five inmate living areas while OCCC has 20.
“I consider keeping overtime under 10 percent a success. Each institution is different. It has to be worked out with watch commanders at each institution. The watch commanders have to have a shared interest. When you have a shared interest it works out better.”
Espinda has worked for the Public Safety Department for 32 years. He is a 1975 Iolani School graduate who got his first job in Public Safety shortly after he graduated from California State University at Chico, California, with a degree in political science.
He says it was natural for him to be interested in public service because his grandfather was a parole officer, his father a Farrington High School teacher and his mother, a public school nurse.
Prisoner-rights advocate Kat Brady hopes Espinda will embrace reforms to reduce the numbers of mentally ill and low-risk offenders.
Retired prisons deputy director Torney has worked with Espinda since Espinda got his first job as a recreation specialist at the youth prison in 1983. His job was keeping the incarcerated boys active with different sports after they finished their schoolwork.
Torney says it was such a different time. She says that when one of the incarcerated boys’ teams won a game then they would be given cigarettes as a prize. Torney says, “Everyone smoked in those days.
“Wherever Nolan is located, the physical facility is always clean, even when he was warden at OCCC, which used to be filthy,” Torney says. “There were clean floors, a clean kitchen. The cleanliness set a tone for what he expected from his staff.”
Espinda says, “You get a first impression only once. When you see the physical appearance of a prison, it will tell you if it is under control, in jeopardy or in complete chaos. When you walk into an institution that is orderly, you feel it is safe.”
Espinda says he is “glad, absolutely glad” he went into corrections work. He says it is a job about which he is passionate.
In fact, it seems to consume most of his life. He says he doesn’t have any hobbies. When asked what he does in his spare time, he says: “Not much. Clean the kitchen and the yard. That’s about it.” He and his wife live in Kailua.
Espinda has a serious demeanor, which some people find intimidating.
“My wife finds me warm and fuzzy,” he laughs.
He says being in charge of thousands of prison inmates requires being forceful and direct.
As his confirmation hearing approaches, Espinda is matter-of- fact about his critics.
He says after Gov. David Ige nominated him to head the Public Safety Department, he knew some public safety employees would be critical.
“This is something I anticipated. I have been doing this job for more than 30 years. I have had to make difficult decisions, decisions that have not been popular with some. It can’t always be a popularity contest.”
Kat Brady, a community advocate for prison inmates and their families, has been critical of Espinda in the past. Most recently, she objected when he instituted horizontally striped uniforms for the inmates at Halawa.
Brady says, “It really great what he has been able to do so far to make sure family visiting days are happening.”
But says she hopes Espinda will also embrace some of the positive reforms adopted by other states to reduce the numbers of mentally ill and low-risk offenders locked up for long periods of time.
Sen. Will Espero, the chairman of the committee overseeing Espinda’s nomination, says he expects to schedule a confirmation hearing in two to three weeks.
Espero says he will not give credence to any anonymously written testimony. “Not unless the person comes forward to speak publicly,” says Espero. He says he expects some people will.
“I know Nolan Espinda has supporters out there who will say he will make a good Public Safety director, and there are those who oppose him. We will have to wait to hear what they have to say.”
Espinda says as his legacy he would like to create a strong and proud department.
“I want the department to be more streamlined, more consistent, more accountable. My goal is to change any negative perceptions people may have about corrections work. It is a dignified and honorable profession.”