Prison commissioner stepping down, leaders hope for management style change

Prison commissioner stepping down, leaders hope for management style change

By TODD STACY and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News 

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Jeff Dunn, leader of the embattled Alabama Department of Corrections, is resigning and will be replaced by state law enforcement veteran John Hamm, Gov. Kay Ivey announced Tuesday.

Alabama Daily News first reported Dunn’s resignation Tuesday morning. Dunn has served as commissioner for more than six years, appointed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley in April 2015.

In a written statement, Ivey praised Dunn’s work for the problem-plagued prison system.

“For decades, the challenges of our state’s prison system have gone unaddressed and have grown more difficult as a result, but after assuming office, I committed to the people of Alabama that we would solve this once and for all. Commissioner Dunn and I have worked together to make many foundational changes, including getting the Alabama Prison Plan moving across the finish line, and I know this critical step will make a difference for decades to come,” Ivey said. “I have said before that Commissioner Dunn has a thankless job, but I am proud that he has led with the utmost integrity. He has helped lay the groundwork that I now look forward to building upon with John Hamm at the helm.”

Dunn will leave office at the end of the month. Hamm is currently deputy secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and has 35-years of public safety experience. He has a bachelor’s degree in justice and public safety from Auburn University at Montgomery.

“I am honored and humbled by Gov. Ivey appointing me as commissioner of Corrections,” Hamm said. “I will work diligently with the men and women of DOC to fulfill Gov. Ivey’s charge of solving the issues of Alabama’s prison system.”

Dunn’s tenure has seen some of the Alabama prison system’s most turbulent days, as decades of problems percolated and facilities remained plagued with violence and abuse. Dunn sought to rebuild the prison system and update its dilapidated facilities via multiple prison construction and renovation plans.

A 2016 bond issue plan floated under Bentley stalled in the Legislature. In 2019, Dunn and Gov. Kay Ivey attempted a contract building plan that wouldn’t require legislative approval, but it ultimately fell apart earlier this year when financing options ran dry. Finally, the Legislature in September enacted a plan that will see the borrowing of up to $785 million and the use of $400 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for two mega-prisons in central and south Alabama. A second phase of construction allows for a new women’s prison and renovations to three existing men’s prisons.

In this photo provided by the Alabama Governor’s Office, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley listens to Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn on a tour of a dormitory of William C. Holman Correctional facility in Atmore, Ala., Tuesday, March 15, 2016. (Jamie Martin/Alabama Governor’s Office via AP)

ADOC is currently being sued by the Department of Justice over its violent and unsafe prison conditions. DOJ updated its lawsuit last month charging that conditions have not improved since the state was first warned of Eighth Amendment violations inside the prison walls.

“In the two and a half years following the United States’ original notification to the State of Alabama of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, prisoners at Alabama’s Prisons for Men have continued daily to endure a high risk of death, physical violence, and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners,” the Justice Department wrote in the complaint signed by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

At an event Tuesday, Ivey was asked if she thinks Hamm’s appointment will help the state’s standing with the DOJ.

“Well, shoot yeah,” she said. “The federal government is breathing down our neck and so this is just another step. We started with infrastructure and told them what we are going to do and then that gives us time to do criminal justice bills and now we’re changing leadership to move forward with more leadership and so that’s a good thing and the court ought to be appreciative.”

Rep. Chris England, R-Tuscaloosa, has previously cited violence, deaths and drug abuse within ADOC prisons in calling for new management at the prison system. Dunn was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force before his appointment at ADOC.

Prior to the announcement of Hamm’s appointment, England said he hoped the next commissioner has “extensive history and background” with prison operations.

“Considering that the next commissioner will be in charge of spending hundreds of millions of dollars — billions of dollars — on the facilities and also under the direct threat of federal intervention, we can’t afford to get this wrong,” England said.

Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, said ADOC needs “someone who has the ability to have a strong hand to take control of this agency.”

“There has to be some substantive changes,” Albritton said.

England and Albritton said they’d like to see ADOC and the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles work together better.

“There should be a unified vision between corrections and pardons and paroles,” England said. “… Ultimately,  I think it would make more sense if the state of Alabama actually combined the pardons and parole and corrections,” he said.

Earlier this month, al.com reported a declining number of inmates being granted parole by the state board. The rate is even worse for Black inmates.

Albritton has previously suggested that ADOC and Pardons and Paroles be combined.

“There’s no real good reason to have two separate, competing agencies,” he said.

Said England: “It seems like if those two had a unified mission, we would probably get a better outcome.”

Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this report.