KAHULUI, Maui — The state Department of Public Safety spent nearly $14 million in fiscal year 2019 in overtime pay — about $3 million more than the previous year, mostly because of staffing shortages, its director says.

Nolan Espinda told state senators Tuesday that the correctional staffing shortages were caused by vacancies, which are fueled by recruiting challenges, coupled with employees taking authorized leave.

“It’s a challenge every single day,” Espinda said.

The Senate committees on Ways and Means, and Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs hosted a public informational hearing Tuesday on Maui to hear updates on the public safety department’s operations, including the status of the final report on the Maui Community Correctional Center’s March riot.

Lawmakers traveled to Maui to hold an informational hearing on prison issues.

Yoohyun Jung/Civil Beat

More than $10 million of the grand total in overtime pay went to corrections staff, with Oahu Community Correctional Center taking the largest slice of it at approximately $3.3 million, according to a chart provided to the committees at the hearing.

Espinda also provided a chart showing the staffing realities, including vacant positions, vacation and Family and Medical Leave Act figures, which showed that more than half of the 1,384 correctional positions in Hawaii’s facilities were unstaffed at some point in fiscal year 2019.

There were 171 vacant positions, the chart showed. And filling those positions has not been easy, Espinda said.

So the department has adopted a more aggressive approach to recruiting, including eliminating some of the mathematical and grammatical questions on the tests that served as barriers to what Espindo said were otherwise qualified candidates.

“We’re not lowering our standards,” Espinda said. “But we’re trying to be more effective and we’re trying to be more job specific.”

Espinda also said the department has increased its participation in job fairs and online recruiting strategies.

Senators grilled Espinda on the recruitment issue, pressing him on whether the department has studied why people are leaving in the first place.

Director Public Safety Noland Espinda during decision making.

Public Safety Nolan Espinda, shown here during his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this year, explained overtime issues to lawmakers on Maui Tuesday.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Kurt Fevella pointed out, specifically regarding the Maui prison, that people don’t want to come to work when it’s not a good environment.

In fact, staffing shortages at the Maui Community Correctional Center, which had 36 vacancies in fiscal year 2019, have led the facility to suspend visitation for two weeks. Espinda announced Tuesday that it will temporarily add no-contact visitation hours to make up for those suspensions.

Sen. Clarence Nishihara, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee, said staff morale at the state’s correctional facilities is low, and that’s showing in their operations.

“I don’t think he views it as an important factor in his job — how you manage the morale factor,” Nishihara said of Espinda. “When people feel that they’re not being listened to, what you have is that people quit.”

There is a culture of intimidation within the system, he said, adding that it may extend to the directors that Espinda put in charge.

Sen. Rosalyn Baker brought up the same issue multiple times during the hearing, saying she has heard from people who have raised concerns and faced intimidation and retaliation.

Baker also questioned Espinda’s statistics, saying his numbers didn’t add up with what she was hearing from constituents. “Maybe you’re just giving us what should be there, but what’s not there,” she said.

Espinda was quick to defend himself.

“My chain of command is always open,” he said. “We want to hear from people. I don’t know where I got the reputation of intimidating people.”

The public safety director was also expected to present the final report on the Maui facility’s prisoner riot at Tuesday’s hearing. He told lawmakers it has not been completed, but that it would be “in the near future.”

The state appropriated $5.1 million in May for repairs at the Maui facility after 43 pretrial detainees disgruntled about overcrowding initiated a riot on March 11. Twenty-three of those detainees were transferred to Halawa on Oahu after the incident.

Espinda provided some findings of the investigation that took place following the March riot.

Within 15 minutes of lockdown, inmates were destroying windows, flooding the module and lighting furniture on fire, Espinda said. Everything not bolted to the ground was being thrown and used as a weapon.

The riot resulted in damage to doors, windows, toilets and fire sprinklers in the jail modules. Two inmates were treated for injuries.

As he has said previously, the director reiterated that overcrowding was the primary cause of the riot.

There were several other problems at the Maui facility that caused concern among inmates, though. Espinda said on the day of the riot, none of the six phones at MCCC were working, and there were multiple issues with the store ordering system, including that ants were getting into merchandise.

The Department of Public Safety released initial photos of damage caused by inmates during the disturbance at the Maui Community Correctional Center in March.

Hawaii DPS

Espinda told the senators that his agency has enacted several changes since the riot, including allowing inmates to eat their meals outside of their cells, blocking access to storage areas where most of the fire occurred and increasing recreational time.

Lawmakers also heard updates from Espinda and his staff on the health care of inmates and the status of equipment purchases.

The public was not allowed to comment during the hearing. A Senate spokesman said the purpose of the hearing was more informational.

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