Ala. prison commissioner hopes raises can move needle on staff shortage
CO trainees who complete the 10-week academy will have a starting salary of no less than $50,712
By Mike Cason
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm said hefty pay raises that take effect today can begin to reverse a severe staffing shortage that has plagued state prisons for years and contributed to problems that federal authorities and others say make Alabama prisons unsafe.
Under the new pay scale, correctional officer trainees who complete the 10-week academy will have a starting salary of no less than $50,712, about $12,000 to $15,000 more than under the old plan. The new plan will enable them to reach a salary of $64,735 after 18 months, or up to $71,412 if they work at a maximum security prison.
Hamm, who told state lawmakers last month that the ADOC struggles to get its share of law enforcement recruits because they can get better pay at police departments and sheriff’s offices, said the new pay scale helps level the playing field.
“This is a good thing,” Hamm said Wednesday during an interview the ADOC set up to help spread the word about the new salaries. “It makes us competitive. It’s long overdue.”
The shortage of correctional officers in Alabama prisons is well documented and has persisted for years. In 2017, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson cited the shortage as a key factor in his finding that mental health care for inmates is so poor that it violates the Constitution. The Department of Justice cited the shortage as a cause in its finding that the dangerous conditions in men’s prisons violate the Constitution. The ADOC is challenging those findings in court but acknowledges the problems caused by a lack of officers to supervise inmates and control the cell phones, drugs, and weapons that fuel violence.
Thompson ordered the ADOC to add about 2,000 officers, roughly doubling the staff, several years ago, but the shortage has gotten worse. The ADOC has tried to hire and keep more staff with retention bonuses and the creation of an entry level position with a shorter training period to get people on the job more quickly. But Hamm said the ADOC showed staff declines in eight straight quarterly reports to Thompson’s court. Hamm believes the pay raises can do what the other steps to increase staff have not.
“This is an enticement and we feel like it will increase our numbers,” Hamm said. “Because all these other little things we’re doing, it was not moving the needle. So this is the next step to get people to come to work for the Department of Corrections.”
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Hamm said current employees whose pay falls below the new starting salaries will be brought up to those levels. Hamm said the total annual cost of the new pay ranges will be about $13 million.
The ADOC has also expanded the pay differentials that allow employees to earn 10 percent more at a maximum security prison and 5 percent more at a medium security prison. Those differentials now apply to support staff as well as correctional officers. The commissioner said the ADOC has trouble filling the support positions, and performing those support duties sometimes takes correctional officers away from their main responsibility of supervising inmates.
In a media campaign and in recruiting efforts aimed at criminal justice majors on college campuses and others, the ADOC is stressing the career advancement opportunities it offers for people who want a career in public safety with a competitive wage. Officers can move to a senior position and then up through the ranks as sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and warden.
“The career progression up to the warden is outstanding right now,” Hamm said. “Not everybody aspires to that. But most people when they get in a career, they want to go up the ladder a little bit. And at the Department of Corrections that is a great opportunity right now for promotion.”
At a budget hearing in February, Hamm told state lawmakers that the ADOC has 1,732 filled positions in its security staff and 688 paid slots that are vacant, or 28 percent. Hamm said Tuesday that filling the 688 vacant slots would be an important first step but that the need for correctional officers exceeds that. He said the ADOC needs about 3,000 officers.
Hamm said the ADOC is seeking proposals from private firms to help fill some security positions that generally don’t involve direct contact with inmates. Hamm said the ADOC is working with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to provide help in patrolling prison perimeters and keeping out contraband. He said the biggest source of contraband is people tossing it over prison fences.
The commissioner said it should be clear before the end of the year if the pay raises will finally begin to reverse the staffing shortage that has persisted for so long. He said a correctional officer training class now underway has about 20 recruits. He’s hoping to see much larger classes by this summer.
“We can house 102 at the academy,” Hamm said. “So that’s what I want. And if I have more than 102, we’ll make arrangements.”
NEXT: Ala. DOC head: 'No one single thing that's going to solve staffing issues'
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