By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
In the second meeting of the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, Alabama Department of Corrections officials said that they are making progress in fixing the state’s understaffed prisons, but lawmakers want to make sure that the progress doesn’t just stop with building three new prisons.
During a tour of the Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore, ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn said that staffing, facility infrastructure and programing were the three biggest concerns for the prison system.
Dunn said that generally across all facilities, staffing levels are at about 50% but some facilities are at 30%.
“We need easily twice as many correctional officers and staff than what we have right now,” Dunn told reporters.
Mathew Brand, ADOC’s associate commissioner of administrative services, said 175 officers were hired since November 2018, most of them in the last three months.
They expect to graduate 90 new correctional officers this month and 50 more entering training beginning in October.
“It was pretty much desperate times in our facilities in terms of staff,” Brand said.
Brand said that a part of what made that boost in recruitment possible was the approval of a $40 million funding increase by the Legislature this year for the department to boost officer pay.
Starting Oct. 1, starting pay for a correctional officer trainee with no post-high school education will be $33,081. Base pay for correctional officers will be $43,346.
The department didn’t give an exact amount of how many more officers they would need to reach their desired amount. Brand said that supporting staff as well as security members of the staff are needed in the facilities as well.
This comes after the U.S. Department of Justice telling the state earlier this year that it is violating the Constitution by failing to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse by housing them in understaffed and crowded facilities.
So far this year, the Staton facility has seen two inmates be stabbed to death. As of June, 10 inmates had been killed by other inmates in ADOC facilities this year, according to department monthly reports. There have been eight suicides and 19 assaults with serious injuries on staff members.
This year, ADOC has held major contraband raids at five prisons, and more are planned. At the first four, more than 1,756 makeshift weapons and about 150 cell phones were seized, according to ADOC. Assorted pills, meth and marijuana were also found.
Corrections has previously told Alabama Daily News that inmates, members of the public and ADOC staff can bring contraband into prisons.
“The ADOC has a zero-tolerance policy for any employee attempting to smuggle contraband into its facilities,” ADOC spokesman Bob Horton told ADN news last month. “All employees are screened when entering prison property and facilities, and – if found with contraband –employees are terminated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
The numbers of ADOC employees terminated because they brought contraband into a facility wasn’t available from ADOC.
Alabama Department of Personnel said that between July 2018 and June of this year, there’d been 18 terminations, 15 separations during a probationary period and 276 suspensions — unpaid time off as a result of disciplinary action — at ADOC.
During the tour of Staton, Dunn said there is one full-time physician and three nurse practitioners to help support the 1,300 inmates in Staton and the about 1,400 inmates at nearby Elmore Correctional Facility.
He also showed one of the single dorms in Staton that use to be an old caning facility but was converted into a housing unit that can hold around 300 inmates and is overseen by only two to three guards at a time.
“Those are just some of the design challenges for a building that was not designed to house people,” Dunn said. “It was designed as a manufacturing operation and was converted into living quarters.”
Gov. Kay Ivey earlier this year said she wanted to build three new prisons, each with the ability to house around 3,000 inmates, meaning a number of the department’s 14 large prisons would close.
Five companies have expressed interest in building new prisons in the state. The GEO Group, Corvias, Corrections Consultants, CoreCivic and Alabama Prison Transformation Partners all submitted “requests for qualifications” to the governor’s office to be considered for the projects.
Lawmakers on the study group were cautious to put their full support behind the building project because they don’t want it to be the only solution state officials focus on.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told Alabama Daily News that just building new facilities isn’t going to solve the shocking rates of violence and suicide that are being seen in these prisons.
“You’ve got to have stringent reports on suicide and inmate on inmate assaults,” Ward said. “That needs to be more transparent with the public, and you’ve also got to do more to address rehabilitative programs so we can get those recidivism numbers down.”
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, who is also on the study group, said he thinks the next piece of legislation dealing with prisons needs to be sentencing reform.
“If we look at how we are sentencing and locking people up for long-term durations, then maybe we can stop this revolving door of inmates being let out and then coming right back in,” Singleton told ADN.
Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons, who chairs the study commission and is Governor Ivey’s representative on it, said that next month’s meeting would focus on sentencing reform.
There were multiple former ADOC inmates in attendance at the commission’s meeting at the State House who also thought that pouring money into building new facilities was not the best use of money to help prisoners.
Freddie Wilson told ADN that he is a recently released inmate who served time in Limestone, Bibb and Ventress correctional facilities. He said he wishes that more money would be put toward rehabilitative programs and helping inmates succeed after being released.
“Building three new prisons is not going to help us,” Wilson said. “You’re just making room for us to go back in there. Help us build the tools to stay out and not end up homeless.”
Rev. Kenneth Glasglow is founder of the non-profit organization The Ordinary People Society, which focuses on helping ex-felons successfully reenter society and advocates for restoring their voting rights.
He also said he wishes to see the money spent on fixing problems within the prisons right now.
“We’re spending all this money on new facility and getting new guards but what is being spent to help them while they’re there to be better productive citizens once they get out,” Glasglow said.
Dunn said despite the large obstacles the department is still facing, he is overall optimistic that they will be able to comply with the DOJ order.
“I think you look around this room and look at the partners we have and the leaders in this state, that are committed to addressing this issue,” Dunn said. “I see nothing but reasons to be optimistic.”
Alabama Daily News reporter Mary Sell contributed to this report.