Alabama Prisons

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

Officer Steven Harrison performs a bed roster, a count of the inmates, in one of the segregation units at at Donaldson Correctional Facility. (Source: Cameron Carnes)


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.

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

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.

Back in November, in Selma, Victor Nguyen, a 32-year-old Pelham-area resident, was hoping he would soon join the ranks of state correctional officers. An Air National Guard member and son of Vietnamese immigrants, Nguyen was president of the 36-member corrections academy class. He has two young children to support, he wants the job security that will come with a corrections post, and he says the work “needs to be done.”

“If someone doesn’t step up, you know, they’re still going to be understaffed,” Nguyen says, “(and) unfortunately, with this society, they’re still going to need correctional officers.”

Before this day had run its course, Nguyen and his fellow students had taken a written test on various ways to subdue an attacker. On a paved outdoor surface, they had drilled on how to use a baton against an aggressor. Their 12 weeks of training were nearly done, and they all graduated Dec. 14.

Correction officers in training
Cadets learn to use their batons at the Alabama Criminal Justice Training Center in Selma. (Source: Cameron Carnes)

They started work this month, and, depending on where they were assigned, their shifts could be 12 hours 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. While they are state-certified law enforcement officers, others in that same category such as state troopers, conservation-enforcement officers, Birmingham, Hoover and Homewood police officers, and Jefferson and Shelby County sheriff’s deputies all earn more. Furthermore, under changes approved a few years ago by Alabama lawmakers, newly hired young correctional officers now must wait longer than other veteran officers to draw their retirement pay and will not draw as much when they do.

Put these and some other factors together and that’s why academy instructors say that in five years, maybe as few as six or no more than 10 of the 36 students in Nguyen’s class still will be working in corrections. These factors also help explain why the class already was small to begin with. While 36 were there in November, 76 additional slots in the class were not filled.

“In my opinion, they’re going to have to up the pay and do something with the benefit package to make it attractive … to a young person,” said Lt. Jonathon Levins, one the academy training supervisors. “Let’s make this job comparable to other jobs out there, let’s look at the market and let’s pay folks a reasonable wage.”

“It’s just a tough deal,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, one of the Legislature’s experts on the prison system and an advocate of boosting officer pay. “Nobody wants to spend more money on prisons.”

Officer Justin Stephens performs a bed roster, a count of the inmates, in one of the dormitories at at Donaldson Correctional Facility. (Source: Cameron Carnes)

When you are out and about, say, in Railroad Park on a Sunday afternoon, at a Friday night football game or in the carry-out traffic line at the annual Greek Festival, you are likely to see an armed, uniformed officer – probably more than one. He or she may be a sheriff’s deputy, an off-duty state trooper or a municipal police officer. These law enforcement officers know that any time they are on duty and out among the public, things could suddenly turn violent. But they can just as easily find themselves enjoying a sunny blue sky and the company of people who give them a smile or cup of coffee and are glad to have them around.

For correctional officers, it’s a little different, and Grantt Culliver knows something about that.

“The thing about being a police officer is, you never, never, never know when you’re going to have that day from hell … but most of your days aren’t days from hell,” said Culliver, a corrections department associate commissioner who oversees operations at the system’s 14 prisons for men. A Brewton native, Culliver started work as a correctional officer in 1981. They called them counselors back then, and the training lasted only six weeks instead of the current 12. He went on to become the warden at Holman Correctional Facility, one of the state’s most dangerous prisons and home to most of the state’s death row inmates. While he was there, Culliver administered 20 lethal-injection executions.

As a police officer, “most of your days … you end up working with people and relating with people … but you’re not in a criminal environment all day,” Culliver said. “The sense of danger is really not there, as opposed to when I walk into a prison. Among violent offenders — boom! — the danger is constant.”

Time to visit one of those prisons.

An officer working in the Cubicle, the control center for a cell block, at Donaldson Correctional Facility. (Source: Cameron Carnes)


A Day at Donaldson

It’s shortly before 6 a.m. on a chilly morning in late November, and it’s still dark at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility. Donaldson, which opened in 1982, is near Bessemer. But when you look out from one of the six towers around its perimeter, it seems surrounded by unending stretches of woodland.

Word is already out that a ninja — a common prison term for someone on foot — had approached the prison’s boundaries during the night and dropped off some cell phones wrapped in a dark-colored T-shirt near a red building called the farmhouse. An officer patrolling the perimeter road in a pickup had spotted a suspicious car along the lone access road to the prison, and officers with tracking dogs later found the contraband. After sunrise, when 18-wheelers were dropping off pallets of canned food, an officer used a Belgian Malinois, a breed of dog originally bred to herd sheep, to sniff the pallets high and low before the foodstuffs could pass into the inmate dining hall.

Designed to hold 968 inmates, Donaldson held nearly 1,400 in early December, including 22 in a segregated death row unit, and it has nearly 1,600 beds. It used to be called a maximum-security prison, but now it is described as “close custody.” Whatever the terminology, Donaldson is still a place where some of the state’s worst convicted offenders are housed. Of the 34 inmate-committed homicides the prison system has recorded from fiscal years 2012 through 2017, four happened at Donaldson.

Originally named West Jefferson Correctional Facility, the prison bears the name of an officer who was fatally stabbed by an inmate on Jan. 12, 1990, and inmates still periodically stab officers there.

Runners, inmates who work at the prison, walk the halls of Donaldson Correctional Facility. (Source: Cameron Carnes)

For its size and inmate population, Donaldson is supposed to have about 43 officers on hand for each of its 12-hour shifts. However, it usually has a lot fewer assigned to each shift, and it boosts the numbers by using retirees who come back to work part time and officers who volunteer to work on their off days. When the numbers aren’t what they need, and they can’t get enough volunteers, administrators will mandate officers to work an extra shift or to put in 16 hours instead of their usual 12.

Officer Sam Snelson, who has worked plenty of extra days and 16-hour shifts, is among the early arrivals on this morning. The Stillman College grad is 32, has a wife and lives in Birmingham. In March, he will observe his 10th anniversary with corrections. He has been at Donaldson his entire career and spends part of his time in the reduced-privileges cell block, a segregated section that houses inmates who are there because of their bad behavior. Some of them are from other facilities, others are from Donaldson. Because he is versatile and available, Snelson does stretches in other parts of the prison, including cellblocks where at times there are 96 inmates and just him. He’s fended off assaults occasionally, including one from a prisoner who was upset over not being allowed to share a cell with one of his buddies. Snelson gave the guy a facial dose of a powerful pepper spray called Sabre Red, took him down in a two-on-one wrestling move, handcuffed him, got him a medical checkup and took him to reduced privileges.

In such an environment, “a successful day for me is for me and my colleagues to leave work the same way we came in,” Snelson says. “That’s what I pray about every morning on the way to work.”

Snelson is well aware of the need for more officers and the positive difference those added numbers would make in the prison itself and on the lives of those responsible for keeping it orderly and safe.

“You would have more officers present, which could stop things before they start,” Snelson says. “It would take the workload off everybody. The 12 hours would go by much easier because now, not only am I in X block and Y block, I have to take Y block on the yard when there’s no side rover, OK? Sometimes I have to go to the dining hall to assist in population chow. Sometimes captains call me for shakedown (duty) when they search for contraband in seg (segregation) units. Had we been fully staffed, I would be able to stay on my post all day, or officer so-and-so (could do so). We’re tired when we leave here. Sometimes it’s more mental than physical, but we’re beat.”

Around mid-morning, officer Charles Dean is helping serve lunch to inmates in G block, a unit of 24 single cells in Donaldson’s 96-cell segregation unit. It was not traditional lunch time, but, “We don’t have enough trays to feed everybody at the same time,” an officer says.

Officer Charles Dean passes out lunch in a segregation unit at Donaldson Correctional Facility. (Source: Cameron Carnes)

Loud inmate voices, amplified by the cellblock’s hard ceilings, walls and damp floor, provide a soundtrack as Dean and fellow officer Terry Huel take trays of food from a stacked cart. Some trays, they place in the hands of a prisoner extended through a cell door slot. With others, however, they take a different approach, using a box attached to the door slot. First they open the box from the outside and put the tray inside. After closing the front of the box, they slide open a cover to the cell door slot so the prisoner can reach the tray without the officers ever coming into contact with them.

“It’s like a constant bombardment of grown-person day care,” says Dean, a 15-year officer who commutes to work from Cullman and has done his share of 16-hour days.

“If I had to say a word: we’re tired,” Dean adds. “I’ve been so tired up here that one time, I fell asleep on my feet and hit the floor.”

Prison officials say recent rounds of publicity about violence and unconstitutional conditions in the system are driving potential job applicants away, but discouraging words from veterans who should be the system’s “best recruiters” don’t help either. “Unfortunately, the more short-staffed our facilities get, the more overtime and tougher the conditions become for those choosing to stay,” says Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Horton. “Therefore, a smaller percentage of these employees, working in these tough conditions, are willing to recommend the job to others. So the short-staffing tends to suffer from a ‘snowball’ effect, feeding on itself and becoming an even bigger problem.

An inmate is led outside for an hour of walking from one of the segregation units at at Donaldson Correctional Facility. (Source: Cameron Carnes)


The Bad Penny

Like the proverbial bad penny that keeps turning up, overcrowding and understaffing and the relationship between officers and inmates have been issues as long as Alabama has had prisons. Governors have created task forces to study the problems, the Legislature has held hearings on them and passed legislation, federal lawsuits have been filed about them, and scandals have arisen because of them.

In the 1970s, a federal lawsuit led to court-ordered reforms throughout the system, which back then had about 5,000 inmates and about 400 officers to manage them. A witness testified that most of those officers lacked high school diplomas, which they must have today. Officers had to buy equipment such as handcuffs, batons and whistles back then, and they had no hand-held radios like they do today.

More recently, the sexual abuse of inmates by officers at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women led to a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit, and the staffing issue has surfaced in testimony in another federal suit, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others, on the system’s inadequate mental health care. In 2015, state lawmakers, following recommendations from a Prison Reform Task Force created by former Gov. Robert Bentley and chaired by Sen. Cam Ward, passed legislation to reduce the prison population and to prevent certain categories of offenders from serving time in a prison. The following year, lawmakers balked at a proposal to create three super prisons that proponents said would need fewer staffers and, with better design and improved technology, would be safer for inmates and officers alike.

Even more recently, corrections has announced plans to close down decrepit Draper Correctional Facility, a prison north of Montgomery built in 1938, and move Draper’s inmates and staff to other nearby prisons. Corrections also plans to step up efforts to recruit new officers and to lobby legislators, who convene this month, to give officers’ pay a boost. For state employees as a whole, there has not been a cost-of-living adjustment in pay since 2008, and annual merit increases were frozen in four of the years that followed.

Today, officers are piling up overtime at prisons such as Donaldson because these facilities need bodies on the beat. Some officers “surge” for weekend duty to prisons such as Bibb Correctional Facility, about an hour southwest of Birmingham, to help out their hard-pressed colleagues there.

Ironically, due to sentencing legislation and other reforms, the population at the state’s prisons is declining. But so, too, is the number of correctional officers. Numbers from the state Personnel Department for fiscal years 2012 through 2016 show a drop of about 6 percent in the number of state employees. The biggest contributors to that drop were corrections and the Department of Public Health.

In recent months, about five officers have left Donaldson to take jobs with the Birmingham Police Department. One was the husband of another prison officer, Ardalia Jones. A graduate of Bessemer’s Jess Lanier High with some credits from Lawson State Community College, Jones, 23, is the mother of two daughters — Faith, 3, and Madison, 1 — and she has been with corrections about three years. Jones is one of about 150 female officers, which is about 12 percent of the total number of correctional officers in the system, and she has had more extended work days at Donaldson than she would like. Yes, that means overtime pay, but it also means she gets home too late to spend time with her kids.

“Better,” she said, “to have higher pay and fewer hours.”

Asked why she chose a career in corrections, she paused.

“I like it,” she said. “But I think I can do better.”

Dangerous Grounds

On this morning in Donaldson, Jones is at work before six, ready to search other female staffers as they come in the main entrance. Her other duties include overseeing the indoor visitation yard, escorting inmates who are transported from the prison to another destination and, of course, spending time on the cell blocks, where male prisoners use suggestive language and expose themselves.

Officer Ardalia Jones works in the Cubicle, the control center for the cell block, at the Donaldson Correctional Facility. (Source: Cameron Carnes)

“I have to (deal with it) because it’s my job, but at the same time, it’s kinda devastating to see that,” Jones says.

“Dealing with the inmates, you have to be firm,” she adds. “You can’t one day be this person and the next day, be this person. You have to be consistent. Because they pick up on it. They might not respect you.”

When asked what she considers to be a successful day, Jones is even more blunt than her veteran colleague Snelson.

“Walking out these gates, knowing you’re still alive, that’s a successful day,” she says.

At Donaldson, officers manage inmates such as Moneek Ackles. Now 46, the beefy, bespectacled Ackles has been at Donaldson 21 years, serving life without parole for his role in kidnapping, splashing with gasoline and burning to death a man named Gregory Huguley in a Talladega athletic field. According to trial evidence, Huguley had failed to pay Ackles and some other men the sum of $200 he owed them from a cocaine deal.

Using salty language at times, Ackles, who pauses in a hallway to take questions from a reporter, says some officers are jerks, some are not, but he adds that there are not enough of them.

“It’s a volatile situation because anytime, anything can happen,” Ackles says. “If you’ve got a situation the officers can’t control, you’ve got a bad situation.”

Bad Numbers

Speaking of bad situations, here are some more numbers. From fiscal 2012 through 2017, the number of correctional officers manning posts throughout the prisons declined from 2,174 to 1,632. Meanwhile, over the same period, the number of violent incidents, which include inmate-on-inmate attacks, homicides and inmate attacks on officers, went from 140 in 2012 to 313 in 2017. While the number of officers manning posts has dropped by 25 percent, violent episodes, though based on smaller numbers, have jumped by 124 percent.

In one such episode, an officer named Kenneth Bettis, a 44-year-old Iraq War veteran and a father of three, died in September 2016 after being stabbed in the dining hall at Holman.

More numbers: In October of last year, Alabama’s unemployment rate was 3.6 percent. That means the pool of potential correctional officers is a lot smaller than it was in December of 1982. At that time, the state jobless rate was 15.5 percent. That’s also when Joe Tew was about to begin his correctional officer training.

The Pleasant Grove resident, then 30 and a father of two with another child on the way, had been laid off at U.S. Steel’s Fairfield Works. He had looked around, checked things out in Texas, and he’d even sought work with the crews that were then building Donaldson. Corrections was “something I never conceived I’d be doing,” Tew said, but the work was steady, with benefits guaranteed.

Officer Joe Tew, a retired Captain, looks out from the guard tower over Donaldson Correctional Facility. (Source: Cameron Carnes)

Thirty-five years later, Tew, who is now 65, is still at it, and all of his work has been at Donaldson. He retired as a captain last March, but he came back in July to work part time, and part of his job is working to keep tabs on gang activity among the inmates. He was doing that job when he retired.

Tew can remember the early days, when the large St. Clair Correctional Facility east of Birmingham was not yet open, and Donaldson had about 700 inmates in eight dormitories. On a normal shift, 14 or 15 officers would be roving on duty there. Donaldson today has more inmates and more facilities, including mental health units resulting from a court settlement nearly 20 years back, but it often has the same number of rovers that it did in the early days. “If we’re lucky,” Tew said.

During his Donaldson career, Tew has confiscated lots of weapons and cellphones and been amazed at the kinds of knives that inmates can fashion. Once, he helped subdue a naked prisoner covered in feces. His wife, Sharon, has told him that prison work has hardened him, and officer pay is not as competitive as it was when he started.

Also not as competitive are the retirement benefits that the prison system now offers. Before Jan. 1, 2013, someone who hired on as a correctional officer and was certified as a law enforcement officer, could retire after 25 years on the job, get credit for five more years of service, and start drawing their retirement pay right then. That meant someone who started at 25 could retire at 50, get credit for 30 years’ service and start drawing retirement immediately, and even start another career. Since Jan. 1, 2013, under changes adopted by the Legislature, a 25-year-old can still retire after 25 years, but he no longer gets a five-year credit. Besides that, he must wait until he is 56 before he can draw retirement, and that pay will be lower because the benefit formula is different.

Over at Donaldson’s G block, Dean says he and his fellow officers are “constantly bombarded with negative energy,” but it’s too late for him to make a change.

“Where am I going to go?” Dean says, his voice competing with the inmate din around him. “I’m 45 years old. I can’t start over.”