By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The federal judge in a lawsuit over Alabama’s crowded and dangerous prison system said he’s concerned about a recent prison staffing report, including the number of new hires the state considers corrections staff but who don’t come into contact with inmates.
“I guess one of my concerns – in fact, it is a concern – is whether there’s (an) actual decrease in correctional officers, No. 1,” U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said during a status conference on Friday. “And No. 2 would be that there is no increase in correctional officers.”
Thompson has previously said the Alabama Department of Corrections needs to add 2,000 officers by 2022.
According to the transcript of the hours-long conference, attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and those representing ADOC touched on a number of inmate health and safety issues, such as staffing numbers and the lack of medical and mental health care staff.
The plaintiffs and defendants are still in litigation over these matters but a decision on a settlement is expected by the end of this week.
As of the end of September, ADOC has a correctional staff of 1,339, an increase of 258 from June, and 1,987 vacancies, according to ADOC’s third-quarter staffing report released last week.
What is not clear from that report is out of the 1,339 staff members, how many are fully-trained correctional officers, basic correctional officers or correctional cubicle operators.
If there were a hierarchy of correctional officers’ staff for ADOC, the correctional cubicle operators would be the least paid, require the least amount of training and have the least amount of interaction with inmates. They are kept at a distance from inmates, and their tasks mostly involve observing the population through video surveillance.
During the hearing on Friday, Matthew Reeves, one of the attorneys for ADOC, said that out of the recently hired 200 staff members, most of those are basic correctional officers. They are a new level of prison staff member and require less training than a full correctional officer. There are some restrictions on the tasks they can perform and they earn less money.
Judge Thompson said he is worried not enough fully trained correctional officers are being hired.
“I guess an overall concern is that, you know, you get what you pay for and if you’re paying these people less and they have less training, then the quality of what the system is providing is not going to meet what’s needed for, say, a correctional officer or what a correctional officer could provide,” Thompson said.
A response from ADOC on the breakdown of the staffing numbers was not available Tuesday afternoon. Last week, the department said it had graduated 405 correctional officers since April.
Reeves said that it is ADOC’s goal for the lower-tiered cubical staff and basic officers to to continue their training to become full correctional officers, forming a personnel pipeline of sorts.
“The hope is that these folks that are hired in a (correctional cubicle officer) and (basic correctional officer) position will begin to fill in those roles,” Reeves said.
The quarterly staffing report also revealed a vacancy of 180 correctional supervisors, which attorneys for SPLC during the hearing said was especially concerning for them. There was a 39 person reduction in prison supervisors from June to September, which Thompson called “very troubling.”
“Supervisors are very important for ensuring that, for example, the remedies in this case are being implemented,” C.J. Sandley, a staff attorney at SPLC said. “The court’s suicide prevention – immediate suicide prevention remedies order, for example, relies on supervisors to make sure that correctional officer rounds are happening in segregation.”
The SPLC in 2014 sued ADOC over the conditions within the prisons and lack of medical and mental health care. Quarterly ADOC staffing reports are now required as the lawsuit continues. Thompson also noted Friday a drop from June to September in ADOC’s retention rate.
Multiple reports have been released this year detailing the horrid and violent conditions for inmates in Alabama prisons.
More than a dozen inmates have been killed in incidents in state prisons since Oct. 1, according to the Associated Press. On Monday, ADOC leadership announced it is investigating the use of force by officers following the recent death of an inmate and that an investigation is ongoing into the death of another prisoner.
On Friday, Thompson said he wanted more information on ADOC staffing, including the number of correctional officers, basic correctional officers and cubicle operators.
“… I’d like to revise the report as quickly as we can to reflect how many of these new hires are (basic correctional officers) and (correctional cubicle operators),” he said. “And I’d like to have a realistic assessment of how many (correctional officers) are being hired and how many (correctional officers) are actually currently in the system so I can see whether the actual numbers of (correctional officers) is going up or it’s going down.”
Medical and mental health staffing was also discussed Friday, along with ADOC’s 30-month, $360 million contract with Wexford Health Service to provide that care.
While the state is looking to increase mental health care provided to inmates, Wexford is not meeting current staffing needs at some facilities, according to Friday’s discussion. Reeves said a modified contract with Wexford is being negotiated and ADOC assesses penalties when certain staffing requirements are not met.
Attempts to reach Wexford were not successful Tuesday afternoon.