Jail policies same after Hilo inmate beating; but state’s security cameras being improved
January 31, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
* Updated January 31, 8:10 AM
HONOLULU — Following the brutal beating of an inmate by four corrections officers in 2015 at Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center in Hilo, no facility policy changes were made in relation to the incident.
The Hawai‘i Department of Public Safety says its policies and procedures are proven, evidence-based and work — as long as everyone follows them.
“These people involved in this incident just failed to follow those policies and we held them accountable for everything they did,” state Public Safety Director Tommy Johnson said during an interview at his Honolulu office. “I think this is an isolated incident and an aberration, and not a normal function of what corrections officers do.”
The four former corrections officers all are serving jail time for their role in the assault in the Hilo prison’s recreation yard. But it took years to hold accountable the involved officers, who conspired in a multi-year coverup for which they also were found guilty.
According to a KITV4 story, U.S. Department of Justice officials said the guards wrote false reports, leaving out the amount of force they used, and when an investigation was launched into the attack, the four men met to come up with a story justifying their actions. All four guards were fired in 2016.
While not in response to the 2015 assault, the Public Safety Department has hired a consultant who is now looking into the security camera systems at each of the state’s jails and prisons to either repair nonfunctional devices or replace them. The consultant also is looking for blindspots where additional cameras are needed.
There was one surveillance camera at the Hilo jail that captured the assault.
Johnson said it’s also not uncommon for one facility to have two or three different types of surveillance camera systems because under the state procurement procedures, the lowest bidder is selected for a project. However, the lowest bidder might not necessarily be the best for what is needed.
“So part of the consultant’s job is to look and see if we can get those systems talking to each other and if we cannot, do we need to replace entire systems at facilities,” the director said. “So we’re looking at that now. The consultant has already been scheduled to start visiting each of the facilities.”
It will be a thorough undertaking, he said.
The department is using $1.2 million of federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund dollars through the American Rescue Plan Act to pay for the consultant’s work and any recommended actions. Johnson added that more funding will be allocated if necessary.
The consultant is expected to have a report finished by the end of February, according to Public Safety Public Information Officer Toni Schwartz.
Following a joint trial, three of the four corrections officers involved in the Hilo inmate beating were found guilty in July 2022 by a federal jury.
The U.S. Department of Justice in a Jan. 18 news release announced that 50-year-old Jonathan Taum was sentenced to 12 years; 31-year-old Jason Tagaloa got eight years; and 39-year-old Craig Pinkney, who struck the victim and held him down as Tagaloa punched and kicked him, received five years.
Jordan DeMattos, 30, who previously pleaded guilty and testified against his co-defendants during their trial, was sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison.
The assault lasted about two minutes. The inmate suffered a broken nose, jaw and eye socket, and the assault was captured by one of the jail’s surveillance cameras. Footage of the attack was later released by Public Safety.
Johnson agrees with the court’s decision and said justice was served.
“The Department of Public Safety will not tolerate any type of inappropriate use of force or any inappropriate behavior by staff toward inmates or other staff members,” the director said. “I would like to also remind everyone that Public Safety took immediate action when it was brought to our attention to remove those corrections officers from the facilities.”
The department has reiterated and reminded the entire staff at the Hilo jail, also known as HCCC, to follow all policies and procedures related to inmate movement, especially during off hours when a valid reason such as a medical issue is required. The facility’s leadership team also was instructed to ensure compliance following the incident.
Public Safety expects all of its staff to follow its policies, and Johnson said the department has adequate and sound policies and procedures in place for the care and custody of inmates, including incident reporting policies. Reports are reviewed by supervisors and escalated up the command chain immediately when necessary to make sure all policies and procedures were followed.
“These staff members acted outside of the policies and procedures,” Johnson reiterated. “The department will not tolerate this type of behavior from any employee.”