Nolan Espinda, a longtime Hawaii prison warden and former director of the Department of Public Safety during Gov. David Ige’s administration, was found dead at Kailua Beach on Thursday.

Sources said Espinda apparently died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and a firearm was found near his body.

Department of Public Safety Director Max Otani sent out an email informing staff of Espinda’s death Thursday evening, describing Espinda as a “career (Public Safety) employee who rose from being a line staff to warden, and eventually became our director for six years. His contributions to our department will not be forgotten.”

Espinda’s wife Malia issued a written statement Friday that described her husband as “the most brilliant, visionary, and principled man I have ever known.”

” ‘Just do the Right thing every time’ was his mantra and he held an unwavering core value of his personal responsibility to every taxpayer in Hawaii,” she wrote. “Nolan was a man of few words, but a man of strong actions and stronger convictions.”

“Acting on his convictions inevitably brought resistance and criticism from some who misunderstood his purpose.  With the strength of his broad shoulders, Nolan endured through all, until he could no more.  We have lost a beautiful, deeply loving man who his children and I will miss forever more,” Malia Espinda wrote.

During his long career in corrections Espinda served as warden of the Oahu Community Correctional Center, which is the state’s largest jail, and in 2009 he took control of Halawa Correctional Facility. Halawa is Hawaii’s largest prison, with more than 1,100 prisoners.

Director Nolan Espinda is confirmed with wife and Governor Ige at his side.
Nolan Espinda, center, listened to Senate deliberations on his second confirmation in 2019 as his wife Malia and Gov. David Ige looked on. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Ige first appointed Espinda to the job of director of the state Department of Public Safety in 2014. He easily won confirmation from the state Senate that year, but had to fight to be reconfirmed to the job after Ige won a second term in 2018.

Senators expressed concerns about a riot at the Maui jail and other issues, but Espinda finally won confirmation for a second time in 2019 in a 17-8 vote.

Espinda abruptly retired the following year as Covid-19 spread in OCCC in what emerged as the largest infection cluster in the state. The Hawaii Government Employees Association and the United Public Workers union both called for his removal at the time, alleging he had mishandled the response to the pandemic.

A graduate of Iolani School and California State University, Espinda began his career in corrections as a recreation specialist at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility in 1983. He moved into adult corrections at OCCC in 1988, and was named acting warden of the minimum security Waiawa Correctional Facility in 1990.

In the years that followed he served as acting warden or warden at OCCC twice, and was named warden at Halawa twice as well.

Otani issued a public statement Thursday that Espinda “dedicated his entire career to corrections and to serving the people of the State of Hawaii. His tragic untimely loss leaves us all stunned. We want to express our deepest condolences to his family and his (Public Safety) Ohana.”

Gov. David Ige said in a written statement Friday that “Nolan Espinda’s career was spent serving the public in Hawaiʻi’s corrections facilities and administration, jobs that are always difficult and often thankless. I am saddened by this sudden and tragic loss, and I express my deepest appreciation for Nolan’s dedication and years of public service. I wish his family strength and comfort in the difficult days ahead.”

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