Alabama Prisons

High Unemployment Hits Even Inmates; Prisons Losing Millions of Dollars

Birmingham Women’s community-based facility/community work center. (Source: Tom Gordon)

Nearly 40 million Americans are out of work. So are about 3,300 Alabama prison inmates eligible to work for private and public employers.

The Alabama Department of Corrections’ 22 work release and work centers, which include a center for women inmates based in north Birmingham, suspended operations March 18 because of the growing threat of the coronavirus. The suspension originally was slated to run through May 22, but it has not been lifted.

“At this time, the ADOC is working on a comprehensive plan to resume more standard operations but has not yet established a definitive timeline for resuming our work release and work center programs,” corrections information specialist Samantha Rose said in an email.

“We understand many of our partners are eager to resume normal business operations in accordance with Gov. Kay Ivey’s current and future executive (reopening) orders and have questions about when the ADOC’s temporary suspension of these vital programs will lift,” Rose said. “Once established, the department’s intent is to keep our partners and the public aware of our anticipated plans and timeline to resume these programs safely and minimize the risk of exposing our inmate population, staff, partners and those in our communities to the virus.”

Inmates in work release and work programs amount to about 15% of the prison system’s in-house population of 21,154, according to figures for January, the latest available on the corrections website. The inmates are in state custody, and most live in separate sections of a complex known as a community-based facility/community work center. These work release/work centers are staffed with correctional officers and a warden. Most of them have more inmates than they originally were built to hold. The Birmingham women’s work release/work center, the Community Work Center, originally designed for 30, had a population of 163 in January. The work release section of the same complex, designed for 120, had a population of 88.

Community work center inmates wear prison garb and work on what the Mobile center website describes as “community work projects with local state, county, and city agencies,” and Rose said they are not paid a prevailing wage.

In January, the corrections website listed 1,883 inmates in work centers.

The work release program has been operating for more than 40 years, and work release inmates wear civilian clothes or a uniform required by their employer. They work in factories, restaurants, packing plants and other civilian sector businesses and receive a wage comparable to what their civilian counterparts are paid, though corrections withholds 40% of each inmate’s gross pay.

Like those in community work centers, inmates selected for work release are considered low security threats. Among other things, work release jobs are supposed to help ready them for re-entry into civilian life, give them a skill or give them a positive mark on their record if they are seeking parole. They often use part of their earnings to support their families and pay required restitution or civil claims to their victims.

“If their classification status allows, the department requires inmates who physically can work to contribute to their cost of incarceration so that the financial burden does not rest entirely upon taxpayers’ shoulders,” Rose said.

From Oct. 1 through January, almost 1,200 inmates — about 80% of the work release population — earned net salaries totaling more than $6.3 million. In addition, they paid more than $454,000 for restitution and civil claims. They also paid nearly $560,000 in state and federal taxes and more than $3 million to the Department of Corrections. They also made an additional payment of nearly $354,000 to the department for transportation fees.

Financial Hit on the Prisons

For the past two months, however, work release earnings have dwindled. Even if corrections decides to get work release going again, the job opportunities will be fewer. Restaurants, for example, are making do with fewer tables and fewer staffers to serve and prepare food because of social distancing requirements. Meanwhile, the inmates remain at the work release centers, where close proximity heightens the risk of coronavirus exposure.

According to a Legislature-approved plan from Gov. Kay Ivey on use of $1.8 billion in federal CARES Act funds to help the state cope with COVID-19, up to $200 million is slated for corrections.

Asked whether the department might use some of that money to make up funding that it has not had for work center and work release operations, Rose said, “To the extent this loss is determined after legal review to be appropriate for CARES Act reimbursement, the department will apply for such funds.”

As of Friday, corrections has reported that 61 prison system employees have reported testing positive for the virus. That number includes 13 employees at community work release/work centers, one of them in Birmingham. Sixteen of the employees have been cleared to return to work.

Also as of Friday, 12 inmates in the prison system, including one at the community-based facility/community work center in Elba, were listed as having tested positive for the virus. One, an inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, had died, and eight had recovered.