Ala. prison system defends use of corrections officers with less training

The department created a new position with reduced qualifications and training in an effort to address understaffing

By Mike Cason
Alabama Media Group

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Alabama Department of Corrections has told a federal judge that its use of a new correctional officer position with a reduced training period and qualifications is an appropriate way to help address a severe staff shortage.

The information came in a Dec. 20 response by the ADOC to an order from U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson to provide a comparison of qualifications between correctional officers and the new position, called basic correctional officers.

The Alabama Department of Corrections told a federal judge that implementing a new CO position with a reduced training period and qualifications is the best way to address a staffing shortage. (Photo/TNS)
The Alabama Department of Corrections told a federal judge that implementing a new CO position with a reduced training period and qualifications is the best way to address a staffing shortage. (Photo/TNS)

The ADOC said basic correctional officers (BCOs) are qualified to supervise inmates and dormitories, search inmates, maintain order, and handle other responsibilities involved in managing prisoners except those that involve the use of a firearm, such as perimeter security posts and transporting inmates.

The staffing shortage is a longstanding issue in the federal lawsuit filed in 2014 over medical care, mental health care, and accommodations for prisoners with disabilities. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, and other attorneys represent the inmates in the case.

Thompson ruled in 2017 that Alabama prisons were in violation of the Constitution because of “horrendously inadequate” mental health care. The judge found that a severe shortage of correctional officers was an underlying cause.

The ADOC is trying to rebuild a security staff that dropped to about one-third of the size needed. It hired consultants to analyze staffing needs and ways to hire more officers and keep more on the job. A consultant recommended increasing the correctional staff by 2,000. Another consultant recommended creating the BCO position.

BCOs are not required to meet the physical fitness and firearms training requirements that correctional officers must pass. Correctional officers are certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission, like police officers.

The ADOC said the physical fitness requirement eliminated many otherwise good candidates, especially women, and that only a small number of correctional officer jobs require the firearms training. The BCO position expands the pool of potential candidates.

Thompson ordered the plaintiffs to file a response to the ADOC’s report by Jan. 3.

The federal lawsuit is separate from the report from the U.S. Department of Justice in April alleging that conditions in Alabama’s men’s prisons violate the Constitution because of levels of violence, drugs, weapons, drugs, extortion, and other problems.

The Ivey administration and state lawmakers say they are working with the DOJ on addressing the problems. Some of those problems, like understaffing, overlap with the concerns identified in the mental health lawsuit.

Violence has continued to plague the prison system since the DOJ report. The Equal Justice Initiative said Alabama has the nation’s deadliest prisons and relatives of inmates told a prison reform panel appointed by the governor that they fear for their loved ones.

In the Dec. 20 court filing, the ADOC said it has hired 340 basic correctional officers in the last seven months, with 235 of those already working in prisons. The ADOC said it has taken initial steps to hire 368 more BCOs.

BCOs receive 240 hours of training at the academy in Selma, compared to 400 hours for correctional officers.

The Legislature approved increased funding this year to boost pay and provide bonuses for correctional officers.

In addition to correctional officers and BCOs, Alabama prisons employ cubicle correctional officers. They work in secured areas and do not have direct interaction with inmates, the ADOC said. Their responsibilities include operating gates, observing movements, monitoring security cameras. and contacting other security staff as needed. The ADOC says the use of cubicle officers in the secured areas makes correctional officers available for the posts interacting directly with inmates.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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