Sam was no stranger to arrest. Since becoming addicted to methamphetamine after moving to Hawaii for a chef position, he spent years bouncing between jails, rehabs, and the streets. But when his module caught fire during a riot at the Maui Community Correctional Facility, he found himself faced with an impossible choice: Go back inside the burning building, or extend his sentence.
The conditions that led to the riot were nothing new. MCCC was designed to hold 301 people, but at the time was packed with over 400. The jail has a history of chronic overcrowding; in 2016 the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii filed a complaint that named MCCC as the most “egregiously overcrowded” on the islands, to the point that it was unsafe. Among other issues, the report notes that it was common for three, four, or sometimes five people to be placed into cells designed for two, forcing them to sleep on the floor among roaches and rats, sometimes with their heads beneath the toilet.
Tempers were strained by other issues, as well. Anonymous whistleblowers told The Maui News about undersized, nutritionally insufficient meals, and last year, the facility was fined more than $16,000 for failing to maintain a functioning fire alarm system. The phones — which often serve as the sole connection to incarcerated people’s children, partners, and other family — were chronically broken. “And mail,” Sam said, “we’d get [letters] that were weeks and weeks and weeks postdated, or never, ever get them; they’d just get sent back.”
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On March 11, 2019, some of the people detained at MCCC began complaining to the guards. It started as a typical, minor confrontation, but this time they’d had enough of being ignored. When a guard ordered everybody back to their cells, several detainees refused. And then they did more than refuse. They began by throwing chairs at windows, smashing computers, and stacking together toilet paper rolls and other flammable items. Overbooked and understaffed, the situation quickly became more than the guards could control. Soon, there was a fire. Detainees report being locked in cells while the module burned, their guards nowhere to be seen. Fire sprinklers worked only sporadically. Smoke filled the cells, blindingly thick. Sam said he was able to escape to an outdoor recreational area, but when he and several others arrived, police negotiators yelled at them to go back inside and leave through the emergency exit, or face escape charges. But according to Sam, those emergency exit doors were jammed.
Eventually the fire was doused, but detainees then had to contend with police in riot gear, who were beating people, sometimes after zip-tying them, according to the reports given to The Maui News. Once the riot was settled, people jailed in the facility were sent back to the same cells that had just been trashed. Many had no access to working toilets. Sam’s mattress was gone. Eventually he passed out on the concrete floor, succumbing to sheer exhaustion.
In the month after the riot, two inmates escaped from the facility through a broken door. MCCC has not stopped housing people, not even for repairs, which include fixes for smoke-stained walls and replacement beds, chairs, tables, and kitchen equipment. One module had to be decommissioned due to the damage; the people housed inside were relocated to other areas of the facility, which are now even more crowded than they were prior to the riot.
When asked for comment, a prison official told TalkPoverty “The disturbance at the Maui Community Correctional Center (MCCC) is under investigation and internal review by the Department of Public Safety. There is nothing further we will be discussing about the on-going investigation at this time.”
The damages are expected to cost 5.3 million dollars, much more than it would have cost to fix the phones or provide sufficient meals to the people housed in the facility. National estimates place the cost of feeding incarcerated people at around $2.62 per person per day; raising that figure by a full dollar would not bring MCCC’s food budget, at capacity, to even half a million dollars. And phone calls, which cost money to detainees and their families, are a highly profitable industry in the corrections world, which means those phones essentially pay for their own repairs. What happened at MCCC is an extreme, dramatic example of the deleterious effects of overcrowding within correctional facilities, but the core issue is one that quietly affects pretrial jails and prison facilities across the nation.
Last April, guards were so overwhelmed by a riot in a South Carolina maximum-security prison that they waited more than four hours to enter the building, leading to the deaths of seven inmates. A 2017 riot in Delaware that led to the death of a corrections officer has also been attributed to overcrowding and understaffing. And earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice deemed Alabama state prisons for men were in violation of the Constitution due to severe overcrowding that led to physically and emotionally dangerous conditions. Some evidence suggests overcrowding may even be linked to a rise in the use of solitary confinement.
Overcrowding can manifest in everyday deprivations, like the denial of visitation, vocational and rehabilitation programs, and appropriate medical care. And it stems from laws and policies that target vulnerable populations. There are laws targeting transient and low-income people, such as panhandling, loitering, and public camping ordinances. Then there are those which could theoretically affect anyone, but somehow tend to target the poor anyway. Drug laws, for example, disproportionately affect people like Sam; addicted, cash strapped and in need of medical treatment. Sometimes people can be incarcerated for months simply for carrying a used syringe or a baggie with stray powder.
Those laws are paired with the cash bail system allows wealthier people to pay their way out of jail pending trial, and leaves those with less economic means — about 460,000 people, or one-quarter of all incarcerated people — behind bars. People who face pretrial detention are more likely to be convicted, usually through a guilty plea.
When people are picked up on allegations that are essentially the result of deprivation — whether of food, housing, or appropriate medical care — and can’t make bail, they languish in correctional facilities until those facilities become stretched beyond capacity. Because these laws essentially target people for activities of necessity — for example, sitting on a sidewalk — they lead to overzealous arrests of people who don’t have the money to bond out. Too often, the crimes that land people in jail stem from an acute need for mental health or substance use services —the exact type of care that these facilities are unable to adequately provide.
What took place in Maui is only one example of a nationwide issue. Across the country, cash bail practices along with anti-drug user and anti-loitering laws continue to funnel people through an already overloaded system, increasing the cost demand on facilities to provide for the basic needs of the people housed inside. The result is hundreds of thousands of people crammed into jails and prisons that are unsafe, unhealthy, and, quite possibly, unconstitutional.
Editor’s note: When requested, names have been changed to allow people to talk more freely about their experiences behind bars.