By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Department of Corrections is defending its hiring of a new class of easier-to-train, lesser paid correctional officers as contributing to its staffing numbers and prison safety.
Meanwhile, state leaders, including the governor, say more needs to be done to attract qualified correctional officers.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson earlier this month ordered a breakdown of ADOC staffing during a status hearing between ADOC and plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit. The Southern Poverty Law Center and others in 2014 sued ADOC over the conditions within the prisons and lack of medical and mental health care.
Thompson previously ordered ADOC to hire about 2,000 additional correctional officers by 2022 and quarterly ADOC staffing reports are now required.
A new court filing shows that from June 30 to September 30, ADOC lost 41 correctional officers, leaving just 1,040. However, the department added 126 basic correctional officers, bringing that classification to 182.
This month, Thompson said he was worried that even though staffing numbers appeared to be increasing, the type of officers being hired might not improve safety in the prisons.
“I guess an overall concern is that, you know, you get what you pay for and if you’re paying these people less and they have less training, then the quality of what the system is providing is not going to meet what’s needed for, say, a correctional officer or what a correctional officer could provide,” Thompson said.
More than a dozen inmates have been killed in ADOC prisons in recent months.
In Friday’s filings, ADOC contends that the basic correctional officers’ training meets all the requirements that COs must reach except for the physical fitness requirements and firearms training.
“Generally speaking, the minor differences between the qualifications for BCOs and correctional officers only restrict BCOs from carrying firearms, conducting inmate transports requiring an armed officer, and filling perimeter security posts,” the filing said.
ADOC says it has hired more than 340 basic correctional officers in the last seven months, “undeniably improving correctional staffing across the state of Alabama.”
BCO training is more streamlined in its curriculum and minimizes the amount of time at the training academy.
“Basic Correctional Officers undergo specific job-related training which exceeds the training received by federal correctional officers and correctional officers in a majority of other states,” ADOC spokesperson Linda Mays told ADN. “ADOC ensures that the training regimen for BCOs is consistent with national correctional practices.”
Experts retained by ADOC recommended implementing the basic correctional officer’s position as a way to recruit more correctional staff to comply with Thompson’s order.
One reason the court filing notes as to why it was hard to recruit COs is because the applicants often couldn’t pass the physical fitness certification. Their responsibilities include supervising inmates and dormitories; maintaining order; responding to and intervening in unruly behavior, including altercations between inmates.
Thompson earlier this month also noted a drop in ADOC supervisors and overall employee retention rate.
The Legislature this year increased ADOC’s budget by $40 million in an effort to raise pay and increase benefits for correctional officers, but more needs to be done, state leaders say.
“We remain focused on and committed to tackling the multifaceted challenges facing the state prison system,” Gov. Kay Ivey told Alabama Daily News. “A major area of focus is staffing, and we continue to be strategic in recruiting and retaining correctional officers. That means providing a good wage and very importantly, keeping these men and women safe at work. While steps are being taken, more solutions are being explored and considered, such as body cameras and surveillance cameras.
“Alabama is working in good faith with the Department of Justice and feel strongly that we are making a positive, concerted effort. This is a tough, complex issue to address, but Alabama is facing it head on.”
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who’s led prison reform initiatives in the Legislature, said more money is needed to make jobs in Alabama’s crowded and violent prisons competitive.
“The worst job in state government is correctional officers,” Ward said.
Through September, there had been 20 assaults this year on correctional staff resulting in serious injury, according to ADOC’s monthly reports.
And as the state’s unemployment rate continues to hit record lows, potential ADOC employees have more options for jobs, Ward said.
A new basic correctional officer earns $31,469 per year. New correctional officers earn about $38,335 per year, according to ADOC.
Pay and working conditions, including improved safety, need to be better, Ward said. He said additional pay increases over two or three years are needed.
“If you want quality officers, you have to pay them quality pay,” Ward said.
The third type of correctional officer, the correctional cubicle officer, also dropped in numbers from June to September, losing a total of 47.
Correctional cubicle officers have zero physical contact with inmates and usually work within secured cubicles where they monitor inmates through security cameras, operate security gates and communicate with correctional officers or basic correctional officers.
Commissioner Jeff Dunn testified that the correctional cubicle officer help provide “greater flexibility to facilities to engage in local recruiting and to ‘enable [ADOC] to get more correctional officers on post[s] that involve direct supervision.’”
As of the end of September, ADOC has a correctional staff of 1,339, an increase of 258 from June, and 1,987 vacancies, according to ADOC’s third-quarter staffing report released this month.
Staffing levels have been one of the many topics discussed at the governor’s prison and criminal justice commission which had its last meeting this month.
Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, is a part of that commission and told ADN that there have been a lot of good ideas put forward.
Rowe said she is impressed with inmate training at Ingram State Technical College and would like to invest in more programming like it.
“I am most interested in the programs that help release people to have the greatest potential of not coming back to prison, ultimately reducing recidivism,” Rowe said.
Alabama Daily News reporter Mary Sell contributed to this report.