By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
The Alabama Department of Corrections has spent more than $25.2 million on overtime this fiscal year trying to fill shifts in its understaffed prisons.
Overtime and the chronic staffing shortage is part of the discussions this week as lawmakers make their case for two new 4,000-bed men’s prisons. Since the beginning of fiscal 2016, ADOC has spent about $185 million on overtime, according to information given to Alabama Daily News by the Alabama State Personnel Department.
Proponents of the plan say the new sites will be easier to staff than the old and dangerous lockups that have about half the number of needed employees. I
“Part of what we hope to do with this new construction is improve the conditions and the safety of those that work there, so it won’t be so difficult to hire new employees,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, told ADN.
Information about projected staffing at the proposed Escambia and Elmore prisons hasn’t been made available, but lawmakers say they expect more people to want to work in the sites that feature small cells rather than large dorms housing 100 or more inmates.
Overtime at ADOC
2021 (through Sept. 16) $25,273,427
Source: Alabama State Department of Personnel
Meanwhile, the state is rapidly approaching an early 2022 deadline to add 2,000 correctional officers to existing prisons. Citing ongoing litigation, the ADOC recently declined to comment on its staffing levels or the deadline in U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson’s 2017 order.
Albritton was blunt about the hiring situation.
“They are nowhere near where they should be,” Albritton said about the net gain of ADOC staff in recent years despite increases in funding from the Legislature meant to recruit new employees. “They are woefully behind.”
As of the end of March, the latest data publicly available through required quarterly filings, the ADOC had more vacant correctional officer positions than actual officers. There were 1,645 officers of various levels across 15 prisons. There were 1,680 vacancies.
At the supervisor level, there were 275 employees and 225 vacancies. The total vacancy rate for the first quarter of 2021 was 49.8% That compares to a rate of overall vacancy rate of 54.9% last year.
The prison construction bill being debated in the special session of the Legislature would put one 4,000-bed prison in Escambia County in Albritton’s district and another in Elmore County. The Elmore County facility would include more space for inmate health and mental health care. Two current prisons on the same property would close.
“The new facility will certainly require more employees, but a lot of those will be in the healthcare and mental health arena,” Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, told Alabama Daily News. The Elmore County site is in his district.
“Obviously, we’ll need all of the corrections officers that we currently have, and even more to staff it properly,” he said. “I believe that many more will want to work at the new prison because it will be much safer for our officers and there will be much more accountability with video cameras everywhere.”
At a public hearing on the construction bill Tuesday, plan supporters were pushed by Democrats on questions of staffing and funding for the mental health services for the new prisons.
“We’re missing some information,” Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said.
Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, is the sponsor of the construction bill. He said the new, modern facilities will cut out a lot of overtime for current ADOC staff, allowing that money to be spent elsewhere.
“That is going to save us a tremendous amount of money to pay for these facilities, to pay for the bond issue, and to put those funds forward to operating expenses for these programs that are going to be particularly in Elmore County,” Clouse said.
Albritton said he doesn’t know the staffing requirements for the new sites, but it will draw employees from multiple counties and he’s not worried about finding needed staff.
Prison construction will take about three years, Albritton said, giving ADOC and local communities time to recruit staff.
In August, Elmore County had an unemployment rate of 2.7%. Escambia County on the Florida border had a rate of 4.1%, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.
The Legislature in fiscal year 2020 increased ADOC’s budget by $40 million in an effort to raise pay and increase benefits for correctional officers. New correctional officers earn about $38,335 per year. Albritton said much of that money has been spent on overtime.
The ADOC’s overtime expenses have long surpassed other large state agencies. This year’s $25.2 million amount, as of Sept. 16, compares to $3.6 million at Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. The Alabama Department of Transportation had $3.3 million in OT.
The ADOC told The Decatur Daily in a 2015 story that overtime helps keep the inmate-to-officer ratio manageable.
While state leaders hope new prisons will show the federal government that Alabama is serious about fixing issues with its prison system, even the U.S. Department of Justice in 2019 said new construction alone won’t fix the unconstitutional conditions. Other factors included mismanagement, lack of training and corruption.
As the Legislature continues debating the prison bill this week, some local and national advocacy groups say new buildings is not the solution lawmakers should be seeking.
Alexandra Bailey, a strategist for the non-profit Sentencing Project, said more incarceration does not equate to more public safety. Bailey said Alabama warehouses people in inhuman ways. That won’t be fixed by bigger prisons. A recent report from the Sentencing project said Alabama now has 147% percent more people serving life sentences than it did in 1970. The state’s life sentence population is now more than the total prison population 50 years ago.
The Sentencing Project also questions the $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds that lawmakers plan to use to build the two 4,000-bed men’s facilities.
“(Using that money for prisons) takes away from other proactive things that actually improve society, allows for better infrastructure, better care, especially in the face of COVID with so many people recovering and instead we’re going to spend it on mega-prisons,” Bailey said.
“… There should be a focus on criminal justice reform, and a reduction in prison size, rather than taking money that is desperately needed, I would imagine, by average Alabamians to build prisons.”
Albritton said he hopes Thompson and the U.S. Department of Justice see the state is making efforts.
“We believe that we are making substantial progress to show that further federal mandates or interferences will not be helpful,” Albritton said.