By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama’s prisons had 1,339 correctional staff members at the end of September, but still need nearly 2,000 more, according to a third quarter staffing report available this week, but state leaders say they’re pleased with progress made toward the goal of hiring 500 new officers this year.
Since April, 405 new officers have graduated ADOC’s training academy, the department and Gov. Kay Ivey’s office told Alabama Daily News on Tuesday. More are scheduled to begin training early next year.
“The governor has prioritized tackling the long-neglected challenges facing the state’s prison system,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said. “Progress is being made, particularly in the area of staffing.
“… We are proud to report that we have graduated 405 correctional officers, with more than 100 officers scheduled to attend the academy beginning in January 2020. Alabama continues to work well with the (U.S. Department of Justice), and they are pleased with the steps being taken.”
An April DOJ report said federal investigators have found reasonable cause to believe Alabama’s violent, crowded and understaffed prisons violate the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bans cruel and unusual punishment. Among the report’s many recommendations was the addition of 500 correctional officers within six months.
Separately, in 2017, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled that mental health care in the state’s prisons was “horrendously inadequate” and low staffing and crowding was a large contributor to problems. He’s said the state needs to add about 2,000 correctional officers by 2022.
The fourteen major prisons had vacancy rate of 56.6 percent for correctional staff and supervisors, according to a September staffing report that is required in an ongoing lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center against ADOC over the conditions within the prisons and lack of medical and mental health care. The “correctional staff” include correctional officers, basic correctional officers, which is a new designation created this year, and “correctional cubicle operators.”
The overall vacancy rate is down from 62 percent in June.
But the two reports, both made public this week, show a drop in the staff retention rate, from 95 percent in the second quarter of the year to 85 percent in the third quarter.
Key to the state’s staffing issue is not just recruiting officers, but keeping them, Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said. He’s led prison reform initiatives in the Legislature.
“The recruiting class are up, but have we stemmed the tide on the poor retention issue?” Ward said Tuesday.
The Legislature this year increased ADOC’s budget by $40 million in an effort to raise pay and increase benefits for correctional officers.
Ward said the legislature will be paying attention to ADOC’s staffing numbers for the near future.
“The Legislature is going to have to hold their feet to the fire. If we’re giving them all this money, and the numbers are not increasing, we may have to reevaluate the situation,” Ward said.
The department’s creation of a new rank, basic correctional officer, which requires a six-week training course, “has accelerated the ADOC’s employment pipeline by widening the pool of eligible candidates,” spokeswoman Linda Mays said this week.
“Our increased compensation plan, effective recruiting and retention strategies and enhanced professional development and leadership training, in addition to the valued support of Gov. Kay Ivey and the legislature have propelled ADOC’s efforts toward progress and transformation of the state’s prison system,” Mays said.
Still, those representing the inmates in the class action suit say they are “deeply concerned” about the lack of staffing progress.
“For our class members, it has an everyday impact on how people are monitored in segregation, the ability for people to get to mental health care, the requests to see a mental health staff professional and, more broadly, the understaffing has a broad impact on the tremendous violence we’ve seen in the ADOC facilities,” CJ Sandley, a staff attorney at SPLC, told ADN.
Multiple reports have detailed the horrid conditions for inmates in the prisons. Multiple inmate deaths were being investigated in October. Crowding and staffing shortages mean they’re dangerous for staff too. As of August, there had been 20 assaults this year on correctional officers resulting in serious injuries, according to the latest ADOC statistical report. Those monthly reports used to include staffing information, but the department removed it in 2017.
Ivey last week announced the state will seek bids from four developers to create three large regional prisons, which would replace most of the existing state facilities.