Inmates in a dormitory at Staton Correctional Facility Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in Elmore, Ala. (JULIE BENNETT)
Posted by AL.COM, Written By Mike Cason | [email protected]
The Alabama Department of Corrections has requested funding for a 20 percent increase in pay for security staff and to hire 500 more correctional officers, Commissioner Jeff Dunn told legislators at a budget hearing today.
The numbers are available on this spreadsheet.
Dunn said the ADOC is requesting a $42 million increase in its appropriation from the state General Fund, from $477 million to $519 million for the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
Most of that increase, $26 million, will be to pay for the additional officers and higher pay for officers.
Alabama’s prisons have been overcrowded and understaffed for years. Some prisons have less than half the officers they need, Dunn said.
“Although our recruiting efforts have increased, we still are down to 50 percent or lower staffing levels in many of our major facilities,” Dunn told legislators at today’s hearing. “And there is a direct correlation between the shortage of officers in our prisons and the increase in violence.”
Dunn said the level of violence is “unacceptably high.”
Dunn had told the Legislature’s contract review committee in December that the ADOC would ask the Legislature for better compensation for correctional officers to help in recruiting and retention.
The ADOC is under a federal court order to beef up its security staff, as well as mental health care. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled in 2017 that mental health care in state prisons failed to meet constitutional standards and cited a shortage of officers as a key factor.
Dunn said the federal court order incorporates the staffing recommendations of a firm the ADOC hired to assess its needs. It calls for an additional 1,800 to 2,000 officers, Dunn said.
Starting pay for a correctional officer is about $30,000.
The budget spreadsheet shows that the increased staff would allow ADOC to reduce overtime costs by $6 million next year.
Budget hearings started on Tuesday and conclude today. Lawmakers are preparing for the legislative session that starts March 5.
Besides the prison system, the Alabama Medicaid Agency is scheduled to appear today, along with the Department of Human Resources, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Department of Senior Services and the Department of Public Health.
Dunn said the ADOC’s most urgent need is to hire more correctional officers. He said improving health care for inmates and replacing aging prisons are the other two main components in fixing what he called a generational problem with state prisons.
The Legislature boosted prison funding last year, partly to pay for expanded mental health care. The ADOC’s budget request calls for hiring 20 additional medical and mental health employees.
In 2016 and 2017, lawmakers rejected plans proposed under former Gov. Robert Bentley to build several regional prisons and close most existing facilities. Those plans would have required the state to borrow about $800 million through a bond issue.
Under Gov. Kay Ivey, the ADOC is still pursuing plans for new prisons, but possibly with a different approach. One plan under consideration is entering an agreement with private firms that would build three men’s prisons and lease them to the state, which would operate them.
The ADOC has hired Hoar Program Management under an $11.5 million contract that includes preparing the architectural and engineering design work needed to request proposals if the Ivey administration decides to build the prisons.
Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Mobile, asked Dunn today if the Legislature was being cut out of the process.
Dunn said the Legislature’s assistance in addressing the staffing issue was vital. Dunn said Ivey asked the ADOC to gather information for the governor to consider on how to proceed on prison construction.
“The issue on the infrastructure is one that the governor has asked me to present options,” Dunn said. “So, we have done that and we are working through that process.”
Dunn said it would cost about $750 million to make needed repairs and renovations to existing prisons and that some facilities have outlived their usefulness.
“What we are doing right now is going through the process to obtain the required architectural design and engineering criteria needed to be able to take the next step.”
Dunn was also asked about $4.7 million the Legislature appropriated previously for the ADOC to enter negotiations about the possible purchase of a private prison in Perry County. Dunn said the state Finance Department handled those negotiations. He said no agreement could be reached and he was not aware of any ongoing negotiations. Dunn said the owner wanted $15 million for the prison, which is not in use.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said the prison’s location would present problems in lack of access to health care for inmates and recruiting staff to run it.