By WILL WHATLEY and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Department of Corrections is asking for an increase in state funding in 2020 and expecting a decrease in the state’s prison population.
Prison officials on Wednesday requested $519 million next year from the state’s General Fund budget, an increase of $42 million. This, the department hopes, will help add up to 500 new correctional officers and 20 new medical and mental health professionals. It’d also give current correctional officers a 20 percent pay increase.
“I think you will see a $40 million increase request each year for the next four years,” Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said at a budget hearing at the State House. “It will allow us to fulfill our mental health improvement commitments and budget for the hiring of new officers.”
In 2017, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson declared mental health treatment in Alabama prisons to be “horrendously inadequate.” He cited “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff, combined with chronic and significant overcrowding,” in his 302-page ruling.
The ruling came after the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program filed a class-action lawsuit over health care in state prisons.
Ebony Howard, an attorney for SPLC, Wednesday called the plan to hire new officers “a piecemeal approach to a much larger problem.”
“ADOC’s own analysis provided to the court states that it must hire 2,261 new corrections officers and 130 new corrections supervisors by February 2022 to meet basic legal and safety standards for both officers and prisoners,” Howard said in a written statement.
The ADOC currently has 1,405 correctional officers spread out over its 26 prisons. That’s a staffing level of about 41 percent of what is needed to manage an inmate population of 20,195, department spokesman Bob Horton said.
Ward said he thinks the state’s record-low unemployment will make it more difficult to hire 500 new officers in one year without raising salaries.
“Correctional officers are the lowest paid law enforcement officers in the state and serve in the most dangerous work environments,” Ward said. “We will have to make the pay more attractive if we want to reach that goal of 500 new officers by the end of the year.”
Currently, prisons are at 163 percent level capacity. This number is down from nearly 200 percent several years ago. Officials expect sentencing reform measures that started in 2013 to decrease the current population by an additional 15 percent in the next year.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn also discussed the department’s hope of eventually building new prisons to replace aging facilities. The Alabama Legislature previously rejected plans to build three new large prisons and close most existing facilities.
One option under consideration by the administration is to lease facilities built by private developers, a strategy that could bypass the legislative approval required for borrowing money.
“It appears that the administration has kind of cut the Legislature off on this process. Are y’all just doing your own prison reform without us?” Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Prichard, asked Dunn.
Dunn responded that the department is gathering information for Ivey on various options.
“The governor has asked me to present options. … We are working through that process,” Dunn said.
More General Fund Agencies
Several other state agencies Wednesday presented their General Fund needs to lawmakers, who will begin their General Fund budget-drafting process when the legislative session begins March 5.
Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Hal Taylor requested an $8.7 million increase from the agency’s current $52.7 million. The agency wants to add 50 new sworn personnel members. About $500,000 in new money would go to increased telecommunications costs.
The Alabama Department of Human Resources requested an increase of $8.9 million from its current $65.6 million General Fund allocation. The department’s responsibilities include child protective services and foster care. It also oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, along with other federally funded welfare initiatives.
The Alabama Department of Senior Services requested an increase of $3.5 million to $102 million. One of the programs acting Commissioner Todd Cotton highlighted is SenioRx, a prescription assistance program that has saved seniors more than $30 million in the past 12 months. The department also serves millions of meals to seniors and assists tens of thousands in receiving health insurance.
The Alabama Department of Public Health requested an additional $71 million. About $23.4 million would go the children’s health insurance program, ALL Kids.
State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris opened his presentation by noting that the Women, Infants and Children program injects $97 million directly into local economies. He also said Alabama’s infant mortality rate was 7.4 per 1,000 births in 2017. While that’s a low level for the state, it’s still above the national rate of 5.7 per 1,000 births.
The Alabama Medicaid Agency’s request of $715 million from the General Fund is about a $40 million decrease compared to this year. Medicaid is the state’s largest non-education expense and receives even more federal funds.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Budget Presentation Documents