DPS: HCCC inmate disturbance in response to contraband sweep

  • Fred Hyun

The Department of Public Safety said Wednesday that the preliminary results of its investigation into a Tuesday disturbance in a housing unit at Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo indicate inmates were rebelling against a shakedown search for contraband.

In a statement, Fred Hyun, newly appointed by Gov. David Ige as a special master tasked with assessing Hawaii’s jails and prisons in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak at Oahu Community Correctional Center, called contraband searches “a continuous effort that our staff prioritize to ensure the health, safety and welfare of our staff, the community, as well as the inmates.”

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“The staff were doing their job to eliminate a suspected contraband pathway and the fact of the matter is, the inmates didn’t like it,” said Hyun, who remains chairman of the Hawaii Paroling Authority — which is also a DPS entity — while performing his duties as special master.

According to DPS, one staff member was taken to Hilo Medical Center for treatment of minor injuries and released Tuesday night. Eight inmates were also taken to the hospital for evaluation of minor injuries and smoke inhalation.

The inmates were all medically cleared and returned to the facility last night. Medical and mental health staff are circulating through the housing units to make sure all inmates who request attention are seen.

The unrest, which the Hawaii Police Department described as a “riot,” started about 3:45 p.m. when inmates housed in the Waianuenue housing module’s A wing barricaded doors to the module and set a fire, according to DPS.

The response included the Hawaii County police and fire departments, state sheriff’s deputies and adult corrections officers from HCCC and Kulani Correctional Facility, a minimum security prison on the slopes of Mauna Loa about 20 miles southeast of Hilo.

“We commend the HCCC staff for quickly enacting their emergency response plan, deploying their teams and bringing order to the module swiftly, as they were trained to do,” said Maria Cook, DPS deputy director for administration.

DPS said damage to the housing module is still under assessment. According to the statement, inmates broke windows and security screens and set fire to mattresses, plastic chairs and books. The module also reportedly suffered smoke damage from the fire and water damage from activation of the sprinkler system.

Cost estimates are pending.

No arrests were made, but an internal DPS investigation and a criminal probe by Hawaii Police Department have been opened. Police and prosecutors will make the determination on possible criminal charges.

According to DPS, inmates housed in the Waianuenue module are sentenced felons serving short prison sentences of less than two years.

DPS said no evidence has been uncovered to point to overcrowding as a cause for the uprising.

In response to a petition by the state Office of the Public Defender, DPS was ordered on Aug. 24 by the state Supreme Court to release inmates convicted of or awaiting trial for nonviolent offenses from the chronically overcrowded facility because of the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak, such as the one experienced at Oahu Community Correctional Center.

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As of Monday, the HCCC inmate population was 290, 84 inmates above its design capacity of 206. That’s down significantly from an inmate population of 355 reported Aug. 17 and the 331 inmates confined at HCCC reported on Aug. 31.

As of Wednesday, according to DPS, no cases of COVID-19 had been reported among staff and inmates at HCCC.

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