Plans taking shape to add COs in understaffed Ala. prisons

Legislators introduced a bill to increase officer pay 5 percent and authorize bonuses to help with hiring and recruitment

Mike Cason
Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

Legislation and administrative changes are in the works to boost staffing for Alabama prisons, which have about one-third of the number of correctional officers they need.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told the Legislature’s prison committee today that hiring officers is perhaps the most crucial issue facing the prisons in the wake of an April 2 report from the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that conditions are unconstitutional because of the violence, sexual abuse, drugs, weapons and other problems.

In this June 18, 2015 file photo, prisoners stand in a crowded lunch line during a prison tour at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala.
In this June 18, 2015 file photo, prisoners stand in a crowded lunch line during a prison tour at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

The DOJ report said lack of staff and overcrowding compound the dangerous conditions. That reinforced previous concerns. The prison system already faced a federal court order to add about 2,000 correctional officers over the next few years as part of a five-year-old lawsuit over health care for inmates.

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This week, legislators introduced a bill to increase officer pay 5 percent and authorize bonuses to help with hiring and recruitment. Dunn said the ADOC has worked with consultants and the State Personnel Department on plans aimed at adding 500 new officers over the next year. Dunn said there are about 1,200 full time officers now, plus some retired state employees who work part-time.

The plan to boost staffing includes creation of a correctional security guard position. Candidates would receive about six weeks of training, not the 12-week Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training required of correctional officers.

Dunn a portion of the 500 slots would be filled by the new correctional security guards. He said the reduced level of training should not pose a concern and said it reflects industry standards.

“The vast majority of systems across the country, to include the Federal Bureau of Prisons, do not do a law enforcement certification,” Dunn said. “They do a correctional officer certification, which is what we will do with those officers. So, no, we don’t think that’s an issue with respect to the ability to safely and securely manage inmates.

“The important message there is they will be full-up correctional officers, be able to interact directly with inmates, provide a fully trained and competent, capable individual to do effective security and management in the correctional environment.”

Dunn said the ADOC would also continue to hire correctional officers through the 12-week APOST program. He said seven classes cycle through the academy every two years. The current class, with about 60 trainees, is the largest in three years, Dunn said.

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Thirty-seven correctional officers graduated from the training academy on Wednesday but Commissioner Jeff Dunn has said the prisons have only about half the number they need.

Starting pay for a correctional officer trainee with a high school diploma is about $31,000. Officers can earn about $38,000 after a year on the job, according to the state Personnel Department.

The General Fund budget that passed the House included a $40 million increase for the ADOC, with much of that intended to add the 500 new officers and increase officer pay.

Identical bills introduced this week in the House and Senate would provide a 5 percent raise for correctional officers and authorize bonuses of $1,500 and more for certain training achievements and other milestones. The bills would allow correctional officers to receive payment for up to 80 hours a year of unused annual leave.

State Personnel Director Jackie Graham said the Personnel Department is working with the ADOC on a plan that complements the legislation, including salary range changes. Graham said the 5 percent raise is in addition to bonuses, annual merit increases, and a 2 percent cost of living adjustment for all state employees that lawmakers are expected to approve.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairman of the Legislature’s prison committee, said today he believes the Legislature is ready to do whatever is required to meet the prison system’s staffing requirements and comply with order on staffing issued by U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in the lawsuit over inmate health care.

“I’ve told the commissioner personally that we want to see exactly what it takes to get him to the hiring requirements that he promised Judge Thompson,” Ward said. “Whatever that takes. If that means overhauling personnel regulations. If that means changing the law. If that means more money. We want to get there to comply with Judge Thompson’s order.

“But what we don’t want to do, do a half measure and then 12 months from now we’re back here again, having the same conversation.”

Dunn said he believes the pay raises, incentives and the creation of the new position can help ADOC reach the hiring targets.

“I think this solution that we’re presenting gives us in the current market, current environment, the best opportunity that we’ve ever had to achieve that goal,” Dunn said.


©2019 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

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