'You're in there because they let you': Father, son know challenges of COs
In virtually every scenario for improving and reforming Alabama’s troubled prison system, correctional officers provide the crucial pieces
Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — John Love hasn’t worked in a prison in almost six years. But some nights, he awakens every two hours, getting out of bed again just to make sure the doors in his home are locked.
“You just have really bad nightmares,” Love said. “A noise, a smell, something will trigger a memory. If I ever hear a really loud boom around me, I about go nuts. It’s not anything I can do something about.”
The anxiety is not new for Love, who worked with the Alabama Department of Corrections as a correctional officer from July 1983 to December 1986. He then served for 26 years at the Federal Correctional Institution at Talladega, until July 2013.
“You don’t realize when you first start out that you’re risking your life every day,” John said. “It takes a little while to get used to it, because you’re not used to seeing fights where people are bleeding from everywhere. Once you get used to that, you’re not fit to work anywhere else.”
Love, who survived a brutal 1985 riot at St. Clair Correctional Facility after he was taken as a hostage, sighs. “You always think the worst of every person you see.”
The missing links
In virtually every scenario for improving and reforming Alabama’s troubled prison system, correctional officers provide the crucial pieces. To begin with, there aren’t enough.
Commissioner says Alabama prison system culture must change
Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said changing the way prison employees view their jobs is an essential part of prison reform.
As a two-and-a-half year investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice of the men’s system illustrated, Alabama can’t keep correctional officers on the job. Understaffing is consistently listed as a major concern - both in care for its mentally-ill inmates, the subject of a long-running lawsuit, and in curbing a climate of rampant violence and persistent sexual abuse, as documented in the report. The DOJ is still attempting to obtain from ADOC certain records on reports of excessive force and sexual abuse against inmates by correctional officers, stating in April that this portion of its investigation is still ongoing.
Simultaneously, Alabama’s prison system already faces a federal court order to add about 2,000 correctional officers over the next few years.
The understaffing problem is magnified in a system of prisons that are aging and badly overcrowded. A recent study of the Alabama Department of Corrections stated that, as of the end of 2017, the inmate to correctional officer ratio for the ADOC’s major facilities was 15.4 inmates to one correctional officer. In one facility, Bibb, the ratio is 30.7 to 1. At Easterling, it is 27.6 to 1. In one year alone, twenty percent of correctional officers working in ADOC facilities chose to resign, the report stated.
The reasons vary from low pay to the challenges of the job, a complicated hiring process, the availability of better jobs, and a lack of qualified candidates, among other factors.
‘What’s the reason to work so hard?’
The problems of keeping correctional officers, along with negative perceptions of the job, are not specific to Alabama. Mississippi saw more than half of its correctional officers quit in 2014, according to published reports. Turnover for the Florida Department of Corrections was 22 percent in 2016. The reasons elsewhere are usually the same as Alabama – low pay, high stress. A 2017 survey of North Carolina’s correctional officers found 56 percent of the respondents had thought about quitting in the last six months, with 39 percent wanting to quit their job. In April, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed job data from website CareerCast and listed correctional officer as the sixth worst job in America, with positions expected to shrink nationally by almost 8 percent through 2026.
Yet ADOC has a goal of adding 500 new officers over the next year. There are about 1,200 full time officers now, plus some retired state employees who work part-time. Legislators this session approved a bill to increase officer pay 5 percent and authorize bonuses to help with hiring and recruitment.
Last week, the ADOC released its “Strategic Plan 2019-2022” in response to the April 2 DOJ report, declaring it will streamline hiring by seeking legislative approval for increased recruiting and retention bonuses; expanding training and leadership development, and expanding education discounts and tuition assistance.
Until those new officers materialize, those in the ranks have another challenge on the job – mandatory overtime to cover shifts that leaves many officers burned out or ineffective, and leads to an atmosphere inside the prison that is largely reactive to violence rather than proactive. Some say low pay and long hours also tempt other officers to traffic in drugs, contraband cellphones, or look the other way while inmates enforce their will behind bars.
One former correctional officer, who asked not to be identified, said mandatory overtime is just one symptom of a larger problem.
“The week I resigned, I worked 77 hours in that week alone,” he said. “Most overtime is mandatory. They either don’t relieve you from your position – meaning no one shows up to replace you, yes, this happens – or you are ordered to work overtime. I was told to work overtime or I would never work in that facility again. What’s the reason to work so hard if you don’t make a lot for it, and don’t have time to either spend it or see your family?”
Shortage of personnel also means shortage of quality supervisors, he said. A high turnover rate can lead to easy promotion, but with that comes more risk and stress, he said.
‘I had more good days than bad’
Alabama’s men’s prisons had similar issues when John Love began as a correctional officer. Less than 10 years before, U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson Jr. placed the state system under federal court order, mandating sweeping change. In the midst of those reforms, though, was the 1985 St. Clair riot, which lasted 11 hours and involved about 200 inmates. Love, who was only 23 at the time, was the first hostage taken.
He said he was too new on the job to spot the warning signs. “I had a few inmates tell me a few days before to stay away,” he remembered. “They said, ‘Hey, why don’t you go fishing or something?’”
Love said within minutes of inmates taking over part of the facility, he received the worst beating of his life. He was struck in the head with a hammer. Bleeding, he patted his face to make sure both of his eyes were still in their sockets. At one point, a gun was stuck in his mouth. Because of his head injury, he was released after six hours. Once he reached the hospital, Love said he immediately asked for a pencil and paper and wrote out 20 to 25 pages of notes about which inmates were involved.
“That was a really bad day I had,” he said. “I had more good days than bad.”
Officers did not encourage Love to stay on the job. But he did, even after an inmate was stabbed to death and died as Love was transporting him to the prison infirmary. When Love asked who stabbed him, the inmate gave a name, which Love wrote on the sidewalk in the inmate’s blood to remember, he said.
‘It took care of us’
And yet, after all those experiences, John’s son Brad also became a correctional officer. Brad now works at the federal installation in Talladega, but he spent three years – 2003 to 2006 – at the same prison where his father was taken hostage: St. Clair, which to this day has a reputation for violence. Just in the past weekend, three inmates were reportedly stabbed there in the same cell block.
In taking the job, Brad said, he absolutely knew the risks, but he thought it was “neat” that his father had returned to work after the riots.
Sounding like John, Brad said not everybody can do the job of a correctional officer. Good people can quickly learn it “isn’t their cup of tea.” As Brad says, a correctional officer can go his whole career without seeing much, but earn his paycheck in 15 minutes.
“Growing up, I had no intention of doing it,” Brad said. “But it took care of us. We were never rich, but never went without. It’s good, dependable work.”
Brad said he is sometimes approached in gas stations by people who recognize his officer’s uniform, and think they know the job because of its depiction on television. “How many did you thump today?” they might ask.
“That’s a bad day, the kind of day they’re asking about,” he said. “We don’t go to work looking for that. I hope it’s really boring.”
‘There’s more of them than there are of you’
As Brad explained, a correctional officer deals with people that have been expelled from society. The officer isn’t there to judge them or punish them, but to keep them inside the confines of the prison. Most of them will probably at some point return to a similar facility. Hopefully, some of them will change. And only about a handful of those behind bars will be the ones perpetrating violence and planning mischief. And they’re not the ones you might expect.
John said a murderer in for life is usually a better convict. “If they had it to do over again, they probably wouldn’t do it,” he said. “Your biggest problem is the guy who’s got less than five years. They’re out to earn a reputation for themselves. They’re saying, ‘I’m Billy Toughtail and you’re not going to make me do something I don’t want to do.’”
To be a correctional officer, Brad said, you have to remember that most inmates want correctional officers inside the prison, doing their jobs.
“You’re in there because they let you there,” Brad said. “There’s more of them than there are of you. But they want staff, because they want people to enforce the rules. They’re able to be there in peace if we do what we’re supposed to do. If you take care of the little things, the big things handle themselves.”
Brad said the Alabama Department of Corrections provides good training for correctional officers, though the staffing shortfall hamstrings the state’s ability to provide rehabilitation services on par with the federal government.
Both father and son are dubious of the drive to revamp the men’s prisons by building new ones. Gov. Kay Ivey in February unveiled a plan to build three regional prisons for men to replace complexes that the ADOC has said are too costly to maintain and repair. Last week’s ADOC plan calls for regional correctional complexes.
Both said the money could be better spent on salaries, which would attract more officers. Newer, larger prisons would merely augment an already existing numbers shortfall.
“They can’t staff what they’ve got now,” John said.
The Loves have good words for their work, but say that correctional officers require a certain kind of charisma that demands respect, even in a room full of convicted felons. Some of the job can’t necessarily be taught, and the reality can quickly destroy a person’s expectations. In spite of the long hours and brutal conditions, it still has its rewards.
“I think I’ve been a positive influence on some. I’ve met some on the street that I’ve had in state and federal prison. If I can turn just one man, and he didn’t go back, then I’ve done my job,” John said. “If you can smile at yourself, you can work in a prison.”
©2019 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
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