Inmates resting in a dorm in Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County in September 2013. (Julie Bennett)
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled today in favor of public access to information about the state prison system, ordering that correctional officer staffing reports be made public sooner than the Alabama Department of Corrections wanted.
The ADOC wanted the quarterly reports on how many correctional officers work in each state prison sealed for 12 months, arguing that the prison-specific information could pose a security risk.
Thompson ordered that the information become public after five months, granting the request of lawyers representing inmates who sued the ADOC.
Thompson wrote that the public’s interest in “ensuring the constitutionality of Alabama’s prisons” and in “the judicious stewardship of taxpayer dollars” weighed in favor of the shorter delay.
“The court finds that the benefit outweighs the cost if a five-month delay is used to balance the competing interests,” Thompson wrote.
The ruling is the latest development in the lawsuit over mental health care in Alabama prisons, filed in 2014.
In June 2017, Thompson ruled the care was “horrendously inadequate” and in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The judge found that the shortage of mental health staff and correctional staff was an overarching factor.
In February 2018, Thompson ordered the ADOC to file quarterly reports on mental health staffing and correctional staffing under seal.
Lawyers representing the inmates, including attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, asked Thompson to unseal the reports. The ADOC agreed to unseal the mental health staffing numbers but opposed releasing the correctional staffing numbers broken down by facility. The ADOC agreed to unseal the system-wide correctional staff numbers.
The ADOC acknowledged that the staffing numbers were published monthly on the ADOC’s website until Thompson’s ruling in June 2017.
The staffing shortage is significant. The Associated Press reported that ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the agency needs to hire 1,800 to 2,000 more officer, almost doubling the staff.
Last month, Dunn told the Legislature’s contract review committee that the ADOC planned to submit a plan to the Legislature for increasing correctional officer compensation to help recruit and retain officers.
Last year, the ADOC increased pay for officers in the state’s maximum security prisons by 10 percent and gave those in medium security prisons a 5 percent boost.
The increase boosted the starting salary for an entry-level officer with a high school diploma to $31,368 at a maximum security prison and to $29,942 at a medium security prison.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said lawmakers face tough decisions about how to adequately fund prison staffing. Ward said it’s difficult to find people candidates to work inside a prison when there are better paying jobs in law enforcement with cities and counties.
Thompson is scheduled to hold a hearing on Monday in the case. The judge ordered the ADOC to show why it should not be held in contempt of court for failing to meet deadlines for expanding the mental health staff in prisons. The ADOC has said it is making all reasonable efforts to do so but has not been able to meet the court’s benchmarks because of circumstances outside its control.