For the second time in two years the state Department of Public Safety has no video evidence to help document events or prosecute inmates who participated in an uprising in which prisoners set fires and destroyed furniture in a Hawaii jail.

Inmates at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center on Sept. 8 barricaded doors, set fire to mattresses and books and broke windows and security screens. Corrections officials said the disturbance was triggered by a “shakedown,” a search for contraband in a housing unit of the Hilo jail.

Hawaii County police described the incident as a “riot.” One jail staff member was treated and released at Hilo Medical Center for minor injuries, and eight inmates were transported to the hospital to be evaluated for minor injuries and smoke inhalation. The inmates were then returned to the jail.

Hawaii County Firemen place an inmate on a gurney after inmates caused an affray late Tuesday with a fire and barricade at Hilo’s HCCC correctional center. Photo: Tim Wright
Hawaii County firemen place an inmate on a gurney after inmates caused a Sept. 8 disturbance and fire at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2020

Shortly after the incident, Department of Public Safety spokesperson Toni Schwartz said in an email that there is no video recording of what took place in A-wing of the Waianuenue housing unit of the jail that day. The inmates housed in Waianuenue are sentenced felons serving short prison sentences of less than 2 years, according to the department.

In an emailed response to questions, Schwartz said an overhaul of the jail’s video system has been underway since last year, and is 75% complete. However, the new $4.5 million video system and electronics upgrade is “currently not operable,” and the project won’t be completed until early next year, she wrote.

This is not a new problem. Corrections officials also found themselves with no video evidence last year after a larger riot caused millions of dollars in damage to the Maui Community Correctional Center.

In that incident, Public Safety officials said 42 inmates refused to return to their cells shortly before 3 p.m. on March 11, 2019, and began breaking fire sprinklers, which then spewed water into the common area. Inmates also smashed fixtures and started a fire, and the smoke drifted into another module where inmates began another disturbance.

MCCC staff said there was no video recording of that disturbance in the jail modules because the only functioning mounted camera in that area of the jail pointed into the recreation area, and could not record. There was a hand-held camera on the site, but its memory card was full, they said.

Some of the damage at the Maui Community Correctional Center after the March 11, 2019 riot. Department of Public Safety

Schwartz said at the time the memory card for the hand-held video camera had actually been removed, and could not be located.

In the wake of that disturbance Gov. David Ige signed a measure that earmarked $5.1 million for riot repairs and other improvements to the facility, including new video equipment.

Schwartz said in an emailed response to questions that most of that money has already been spent on repairs and upgrades, and MCCC now has a system that allows staff to record and review video in the living modules, multi-purpose area and recreation areas.

“Video evidence can be extracted from the recording for investigations,” she said of the new MCCC system.

Hawaii Community Correction Center was the site of a “riot” in September that resulted in damage to the facility and minor injuries. Courtesy: Department of Public Safety/2020

Following the Maui disturbance last year, corrections officials announced they transferred 21 inmates who were allegedly involved to Halawa Correctional Facility — the state’s largest prison — but it is unclear if anyone ever faced criminal charges in connection with the incident.

When asked if any inmates were ever prosecuted for the March 11 disturbance at MCCC, Schwartz referred questions to the Maui Police Department.

Maui police did not respond to questions about the status of their investigation, but spokespersons for the Maui Prosecutor’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office said those agencies have not handled criminal cases related to the Maui riot.

Similarly to the Hilo incident last month, the state announced 25 prisoners who allegedly participated in that disturbance were also transferred to Halawa.

Prison officials released a statement on Sept. 9 announcing that “Hawaii Police are currently conducting a criminal investigation and will make the determination on possible criminal charges” in connection with the HCCC incident.

A Hawaii County police spokesperson said the department filed a report in that case on Sept. 10, but said “we are not currently investigating anything further on this matter.”

The department released a police report on the incident that briefly details officers’ efforts to close off streets and form a perimeter around the Hilo jail during the disturbance, but makes no mention of any criminal investigation.

Hawaii Community Correction Center was the site of a “riot” in September that resulted in damage to the facility and minor injuries. Courtesy: Department of Public Safety/2020

Schwartz said HCCC will coordinate with officials at Halawa to send investigators to Oahu, and “administrative penalties will be determined upon completion of their investigation, as well as possible criminal charges to pursue.”

Jeff Mellow, professor in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York, said the overwhelming majority of jails and prisons nationwide have some kind of video surveillance system in place. A number of facilities are also adopting body camera technology, he said.

The Maui and Hilo jails each held about 270 inmates as of Sept. 21. Given that population, he said, “I really would have expected that they would have in place a video monitoring system.”

Mellow said video evidence “definitely helps” when the authorities attempt to prosecute inmates who are involved in uprisings, but the cameras are not fool-proof. Prisoners who are involved in riots often will cover their faces, put wet towels over cameras or windows, or try to break the devices, he said.

“There have been riots in the past where not as many cases were filed just because the inmates broke the cameras too quickly, and they didn’t have that video evidence,” Mellow said.

As for the issue of prosecutions, “I think there needs to be some consequence to a disturbance or a riot. Of course you can indict them on criminal charges, that’s one way. Another way is to bring them up on disciplinary infractions, you can transfer them, you can send them to restrictive housing, you can take away their good-time credits,” Mellow said.

Schwartz said administrative penalties were imposed on 18 inmates who were administratively adjudicated and found guilty last November of involvement in the MCCC fire or the riot.

Prisoners who were found guilty and sanctioned in connection with the fire at MCCC were assessed $1,358, Schwartz wrote. Those who were found guilty and sanctioned related to the fire and the riot were assessed $2,716.

Any money that is actually collected from the prisoners will be deposited into the state general fund, she said.

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