As the Alabama Legislature’s 2019 regular session wound down Friday, state lawmakers had boosted the budget for the state’s prisons and approved a pay raise for correctional officers, and they expect to meet again in the fall to address other issues in a system that is still overcrowded, under-resourced and under the watchful eye of a federal judge and the U.S. Justice Department.
“There are lot of different issues, from mental health to overcrowding, the pay, to facilities,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.
On Wednesday, Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill that will give correctional officers “a one-time two-step salary increase,” and expand bonus opportunities for Department of Corrections employees. The measure takes effect Oct. 1, the first day of fiscal 2020.
Over the past few years, the Department of Corrections has seen its budgets increase by small amounts. Its funding from the General Fund in fiscal 2020 is $601 million.
The Legislature has approved and sent to the governor a General Fund budget that includes money to cover the pay increase signed into law by Ivey, give money to hire and train 500 new corrections officers during fiscal 2020 and improve the prison system’s mental health services.
Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn issued a statement thanking the Legislature for the budget and adding that he looked forward “to working with our state leadership in the months ahead as we move forward to address immediate challenges that include developing a sustainable workforce, and revitalizing the infrastructure of our prison system.”
“We still have a lot of work ahead,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.
Special Session on Prisons Expected
According to “Recruiting and Retaining Correctional Officers,” a report prepared for Corrections by Warren Averett, an accounting and consulting firm, a federal judge recently ruled that the key problems putting inmates in harm’s way were a “shortage of mental health staff, understaffing of correctional officers and overcrowding.”
Building new, state-of-the-art prisons is another down-the-road priority for lawmakers. The questions are how many, and how they will become reality. Ivey has talked of a private company building the prisons, then leasing them to the state, which then would staff them and operate them. Some lawmakers, on the other hand, would prefer that the Legislature develop a plan of its own, a plan that has failed in previous sessions.
“My guess is, you’ll probably see some sort of hybrid approach, where she says she wants to do it but she’ll have some sort of legislative oversight,” Ward said. “That’s where I have a feeling we’re going, and that’s probably a better way of doing it.”
In any event, lawmakers expect Ivey to call a special session for October on prison issues, and “all options are on the table,” said Gina Maiola, a deputy press secretary to the governor.
In April, the U.S. Justice Department issued a toughly worded report in which it stated that Alabama prisons “do not provide adequate humane conditions of confinement.
“They have a number of significant physical plant-related security issues that contribute to the unreasonable risk of serious harm from prisoner violence,” the report added. “These problems include defective locks; insufficient or ineffective cameras; a lack of mirrors; deteriorating electrical and plumbing systems; as well as structural design issues and weaknesses with the buildings and their perimeters. These problems allow prisoners to leave secure areas, obtain contraband, and improperly associate with or assault other prisoners.”
Justice Department: List of Prison Problems
However, the report states that the problems afflicting the system require a lot more than new, properly equipped buildings.
“New facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional condition of ADOC prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse,” the report states. “And new facilities would quickly fall into a state of disrepair if prisoners are unsupervised and largely left to their own devices, as is currently the case.”
As of last week, Alabama’s prisons, work release centers and other state-run facilities held 20,369 inmates. Ward, who has worked on prison issues for years in his position in the Legislature, said about 70 percent of the inmates were serving time for the state criminal code’s most serious offenses such as murder and rape and robbery in the first degree.
In recent years, as the Legislature has approved sentencing reforms designed to keep certain categories of offenders out of prison and nudged up officer pay, the state prison system’s inmate population has been dropping. But the current population still amounts to 164% of what the state’s aging facilities were built to hold. The number of correctional officers was listed last week at 1,414, meaning that for every 14 inmates, there is one officer. About 1,900 authorized correctional officer slots are unfilled.
In some institutions, the occupancy rate is dramatically higher. At Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent, for example, the occupancy rate is nearly 200%. That means officers there work vast amounts of overtime and officers from other institutions help with the staffing. In December 2017, Bibb’s inmate-to-officer ratio was 31 to 1.
Earlier this year, according to the Justice Department, Dunn said the department needed to hire 2,200 correctional officers “over the next four years to adequately staff its men’s prisons.”
On April 25, 58 students became correctional officers after completing 12 weeks of training at the Alabama Corrections Academy in Selma and were assigned to different institutions throughout the system. Seventy-five more students are now in Selma, “the biggest class since 2015,” according to Lt. Jonathon Levins, the academy’s training supervisor, and more than 100 applicants are expected for the training class that starts in September. Corrections spokesman Bob Horton said the department hopes to graduate 500 correctional officers in 2020, 700 in 2021 and 800 in 2022.
“We’re beginning to make real headway in addressing our core issue, and that is lack of staffing,” Dunn said.
Corrections recently announced what Horton called “an important step forward” to address that core issue – the creation of another position, called a basic correctional officer. Those officers will undergo six weeks of training and perform many of the same tasks that regular correctional officers do, except for such tasks as transferring inmates, driving patrol trucks on a prison’s perimeter or manning patrol towers. A lot more will be required of them than from some employees now scattered throughout the system who are known as correctional cubical operators. A veteran officer at one of the state’s prisons said the cubical operators receive two weeks’ training, “don’t deal directly with inmates” and basically lock and open cell block doors.
For years, Corrections has seen steady losses from the ranks of its regular correctional officers. Those officers not only receive 12 weeks training, but they are certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission. According to the Warren Averett report, nearly 50% of 2013’s 236 Corrections Academy graduates and 72% of 2016’s 124 grads were gone after a few years on the job. Such losses have consequences inside the prisons.
Inmates “Not Being Watched”
“Dormitories of prisoners, housing up to 180 men, are often unsupervised for hours or shifts at a time,” states the Justice Department report.
At the sprawling Donaldson Correctional Facility near Bessemer, a prison that houses some of the system’s worst offenders, less than 40 percent of the authorized correctional officer slots were filled last June, according to the Justice Department. Last week, a Donaldson veteran officer said that means that in many parts of the prison, inmates are “not being watched.”
“They pretty much do what they want to do if they can get away with it,” said the veteran, who asked that his name not be used because he is not a designated spokesman. As an example, he said in one part of the prison there are five open bay dormitories, each containing about 130 inmates.
“We used to have cubicle officers in between the units so we could have at least one officer with eyes on the inmates all the time,” the veteran said. “We had to close those (cubicles) because we don’t have the personnel to keep people up there now … We might have one or two officers on the South side for all 500 to 600 inmates and they are tentative about going inside the dorms to patrol. And part of it, too, is they yank us out so much to where you end up doing a whole bunch of different things that you can’t walk through the units like you used to.”
In its scathing April report on Alabama prison conditions, the U.S. Justice Department stated, “The combination of ADOC’s overcrowding and under-staffing results in prisons that are inadequately supervised, with inappropriate and unsafe housing designations, creating an environment rife with violence, extortion, drugs, and weapons.”
Report: Highest Homicide Rate
Citing the latest data available from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the report states Alabama prisons “have the highest homicide rate in the country.” And no other state department comes close to paying what Corrections pays in overtime – nearly $32 million cited for one year in the Justice report.
According to the latest Corrections numbers for the current fiscal year, inmate deaths by homicide already total eight for fiscal 2019, one higher than the seven listed for all of fiscal 2018. Other stats suggest that inmate on inmate assaults, with or without serious injury, and inmate assaults on prison staffers that don’t lead to serious injury will all be fewer at year’s end. But inmate assaults on staff that result in serious injuries look to be higher, maybe even twice as high, than the 12 reported in fiscal ‘18.
What to Do?
“The biggest thing we need, obviously, is people and the only way we’re going to get more people is to offer more pay,” the veteran officer said.
According to the Warren Averett report, correctional officers “receive standard state government benefits, which are in most cases comparable or better than benefits for private sector jobs,” but their salaries “are not high enough to compete with other law enforcement jobs.
“The mean salary for correctional officers and jailers in Alabama is $35,370,” according to the report, “while the mean salary for police and sheriff’s patrol officers is $44,490.”
In issuing its report on Alabama prisons, Justice threatened to sue the state 49 days later to force it to address conditions in the prisons. That deadline passed last week. and Ward and Marsh said Justice officials understand that Alabama lawmakers are working on a multi-faceted prison reform approach.
“We talk almost on a daily basis,” Ward said, “and they’ve really been good to work with … What they want to see is that you’re serious about making progress. They want to see that at least, you’re trying.”
“We want to be very clear to the Department of Justice, we are not putting this off. We want to make sure we are well prepared and address all these issues at the same time,” Marsh said.
“This is a state problem that is our responsibility to address and I’ve not been in a meeting where anybody was butting heads over this thing,” Marsh added. “In June, we will start work on what I would call a more comprehensive package to address the … prison situation.”
One thing that has been happening is that a group of lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, have been periodically meeting out of the spotlight to discuss prison issues. Topics have included more sentencing reform and more special courts to divert offenders from prison.
“This is the first time, ever, since I’ve been here that I’ve seen a group of black Democratic House members and senators (and) Republican guys in the House and Senate, all in the same room talking about the same thing, and actually being not far apart from each other,” Ward said.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, who sponsored the pay and bonus bill that Ivey signed into law Wednesday, has been pushing for a bill to require Corrections to submit monthly reports to the Legislature on cases of sexual abuse and suicides, Ward said.
“That was a Democratic idea and all the Republicans in the room said, ‘That’s a good idea.,’” Ward said. “And the reason that worked? We’re getting in a room by ourselves, no media, no lobbyists, just us, and coming up with some of these ideas.”
BirminghamWatch, in collaboration with B-Metro Magazine, documented the conditions under which correctional officers work for a story last year: