By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said Thursday that he is optimistic the state will reach a settlement and avoid a Department of Justice lawsuit over prison violence.
The U.S. Department of Justice this month released a scathing report saying Alabama inmates are housed in violent, unsafe and unconstitutional conditions. Dunn told the Joint Legislative Committee on Prison Oversight that the department is communicating with federal officials and he is optimistic they will reach a settlement agreement.
“We’ve got to address these issues. I’ve been saying that for four years, ever since I came into this position,” Dunn told reporters after the meeting.
Understaffing was a major concern identified by the Justice Department. Committee members quizzed Dunn on the department’s attempt to add staff.
Alabama is attempting to hire 500 officers within a year to comply with a court order in an ongoing prison health care case to add about 2,000 officers by 2020.
A firm hired by the state to develop a staffing plan recommended increasing starting officer trainee pay from about $29,000 to about $37,000.
Legislation introduced this week would give officers a two-step salary increase. State Personnel Director Jackie Graham said the state is also expanding salary ranges and making other administrative changes to increase pay.
Committee members said they wanted to see firm numbers on what pay would be under the proposed changes and how it would compare to the firm’s recommendations.
“If we need to hire 500 people, our job is to figure out how to do it,” Committee Chairman Cam Ward said.
The firm also recommended creating a new type of officer position, with easier entry requirements, to handle some prison tasks.
Lawmakers pressed Dunn if the state would actually be able to hire 500 officers in one year.
Dunn responded that the salary proposal gives the “best opportunity to achieve that goal.”
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is considering a plan to build new prisons. The Alabama Department of Corrections sought “expressions of interest” from companies to build three new prisons and lease them back to the state. Ivey’s office said Thursday that five companies responded.
Some lawmakers expressed concern about the pace of the state reaction to the Department of Justice.
Asked if he was satisfied with the department’s plan to address the scathing findings, Rep. Chris England, replied that, “Actually, I haven’t heard one.”
England, a member of the oversight committee, said lawmakers are still waiting to see the department’s short-term and long-term plans for addressing the report.
Ward and England said they expect lawmakers to bring their own a series of bills, ranging from prison construction to sentencing changes, to try to improve conditions.
“The Department of Justice wants to see some political will to actually tackle the problem,” England said.
A search of the prison where Alabama conducts executions has turned up multiple weapons and cellphones.
The Department of Corrections says about 300 officers from state and local agencies began a security sweep before dawn Thursday at Holman prison near Atmore. The state’s death chamber is located at the maximum-security lockup.
Photos released by the agency show authorities already have found multiple weapons and cellphones in the 870-man prison.
A spokesman says the search for contraband is continuing.
A similar search earlier this year at the roughly 900-inmate St. Clair prison in Springville turned up about 160 weapons, nearly 50 cellphones and drugs.
A statement by deputy prison commissioner Charles Daniels says large-scale searches are being staged to reverse a trend of increased violence in Alabama prisons.
Gov. Kay Ivey last night announced a new development in her plan to build three new state prisons.
Five companies have responded with an “Expression of Interest” to design, develop and build the three prisons that are slated to replace the state’s most dangerous and costly facilities. Those facilities would then be leased and run by the state.
CoreCivic, Corrections Consultants, LLC, Plenary, Provident Resources Group and Star America each responded saying they were interested in doing the work.
The next step is a Request for Qualifications, which is expected to be issued in the coming weeks.