Category: Alabama Prisons

Lawmakers Boost Money for Prisons and Will Return in the Fall to Take on Pervasive Problems

As the Alabama Legislature winds down its regular session, state lawmakers are on track to boost the budget for the state’s prisons, they have 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.

Friday is likely to be the last day of the regular session. 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. For fiscal 2020, it expects to have a budget of $601 million. Most of that money would come from the state General Fund, which pays for most of state government’s non-educational functions.

The Legislature has approved and sent to the governor a General Fund budget that is slated to include 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. Read more.

BirminghamWatch, in collaboration with B-Metro Magazine, documented the conditions under which correctional officers work for a story last year:

Guarded: Alabama Correctional Officers Work Long Hours in Dangerous Conditions for Low Pay – and There Aren’t Nearly Enough of Them.

Lawmakers Tackle Alabama’s Persistent Prison Problems

Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded, understaffed, and plagued by violence. A federal judge ruled mental health care for inmates is “horrendously inadequate.” There have been 15 suicides in as many months – including one earlier this month. Two inmates were stabbed and killed recently as well. While overcrowding has eased slightly, state lawmakers know there’s more work to do. WBHM’s Andrew Yeager spoke with state Sen. Cam Ward, a leading voice on prison issues, to get a sense of where lawmakers stand during this legislative session.

Alabama Says its $900 Million Prisons Plan Can Help Fix Mental Health Crisis. Some Disagree.

Kilby Correctional Facility, just outside of Montgomery, looks like a group of warehouse-style buildings surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence. Inside, inmates have just finished lunch. The hallways are loud and sounds echo off the walls. Warden Leon Bolling leads the way to the mental health crisis area. He says this area is for prisoners at risk of suicide.

“Everything is supposed to try to be free from person being able to do something to harm themselves,” Bolling says.

Inmates in these mental health crisis units often stay in their cells alone all day. They are constantly monitored by staff, according to prison officials. But some say that’s not enough.

Suicide is a problem in Alabama’s prisons. In the past 15 months, 14 inmates have died by suicide. Advocacy groups say that amounts to one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. In 2017, a federal judge said mental health care in state prisons was “horrendously inadequate.” The Department of Corrections is under court order to hire more staff and improve treatment. But this is a challenge, according to Jeff Dunn, commissioner of the DOC. Read more.

PARCA Tackling Research on Alabama’s Prison Problems as Legislature Begins to Meet

The Alabama Legislature will face tough choices this year on solving problems of the state’s crowded, obsolete and under-funded prison system, and the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama is preparing a series of briefings to address “a system in crisis.”

PARCA, a non-profit organization that does nonpartisan research on issues facing state and local governments in Alabama, outlined problems that it said could lead to a federal takeover of the prisons system if they are not solved.

Gov. Kay Ivey has proposed the construction of three new men’s prisons at a cost of $950 million as one step toward dealing with the issues of crowding, health care and crumbling facilities. Read more.

State Looking at Plans to Fix or Replace Crowded, Crumbling Prisons; Lawmakers Don’t Expect to Be Part of Infrastructure Plan

Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Corrections aren’t yet talking publicly about possible fixes for the state’s crowded and aging prisons, but they are extending a multimillion-dollar contract with an outside project manager to study construction needs.

Some leaders in the Statehouse say they expect Ivey to move forward with a plan for new prisons that doesn’t require legislative approval.

“We’re going to have several prison-related bills (in the 2019 legislative session), but none will be infrastructure,” Sen. Cam Ward said recently. He expects Ivey next year will begin the process to pay private companies for prison space.

“XYX company builds it, we lease it,” Ward, R-Alabaster, said. The new prisons would be staffed and run just like state-owned facilities. Read more.

SPLC Calls on Court to Hold Alabama Prison System in Contempt

The Southern Poverty Law Center wants the state prison system held in contempt for failing to fill mental health positions. Contempt hearings began Tuesday in U.S. District Court involving the Alabama Department of Corrections and lawyers representing inmates.

The issue comes a year after a judge ruled mental health care in Alabama prisons was “horrendously inadequate.” A federal court ordered the Department of Corrections to have more than 260 mental health workers on staff by July 1. The state failed to meet that and previous deadlines. Read More.

Guarded: Alabama Correctional Officers Work Long Hours in Dangerous Conditions for Low Pay – and There Aren’t Nearly Enough of Them

On a warm fall afternoon, 30 men and six women, all wearing charcoal gray T-shirts and navy blue trousers, stood at attention outside a dormitory building on the Wallace Community College campus in Selma. Chanting in a military-style cadence, they trotted to another nearby building where, outside the entrance, one of their members slam-jammed into the ground a pole from which hung a flag bearing the emblem of the Alabama Department of Corrections.

This group of 36 made up the most recent class of students at the Alabama Corrections Academy, preparing for a job that most Alabamians would not want, in a workplace most would shun. That job is working as a correctional officer in an often overcrowded Alabama prison. The Department of Corrections has too many inmates and not enough officers, and in recent years more officers have left the prison system than new ones have joined.

In early December, the population in the state prison system, ranging from those locked down in death row cells to those soon to be set free from work release centers, was 21,213, about 8,000 more than the system originally was built to hold. The number of correctional officers staffing system facilities was 1,569, which is only 44 percent of the number the corrections department says it is supposed to have.

Depending on where they were assigned, the new class of recruits could be working 12-hour days or even longer because of staff shortages. Every day, inmates would be watching them, looking to befriend them or ask them for a favor. Some days, inmates might curse at them, throw feces and urine, use dinner trays as weapons or fight to keep illegal contraband such as cell phones.

For working in this closed society, in which they can feel just as confined as the inmates, the officers’ entry-level pay is less than $29,000, slightly higher if they have a college degree. Read more.

Listen to WBHM report, Working in Alabama’s Prisons, featuring Tom Gordon