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Senate committee OKs raise, bonuses for correctional officers

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn and members of his team addressed the Joint Legislative Committee on Prisons Thursday about the chronic understaffing in Alabama’s prisons.

The Joint Legislative Committee on Prisons is chaired by State Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and State Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville.

Dunn told the committee that he has been working with an outside consulting firm for six months on improving ADOC’s recruitment and retention of corrections officers. Dunn acknowledged that the hiring of more officers was crucial and said that higher pay and retention and recruitments bonuses would help in the goal.

The committee voted to support a plan to raise the corrections officers pay by five percent and to offer the bonuses that Dunn has requested.

The governor is requesting hiring 500 more corrections officers in her budget. That was part of the General Fund budget that passed the House last weeks.

Legislators have expressed doubts that that is even possible.

“I think the commissioner is anticipating that the new pay scale will up that number, but I think we all have doubts,” Ward said.

Dunn told the committee that ADOC just graduated a class of 62 new corrections officers. That is the largest class in years. Some classes have been as low as 24. Dunn said that they typically have seven classes graduate from the academy every 24 months.

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Dunn said ADOC currently has 1,200 full-time officers, plus a number of retired state workers who help meet the state’s staffing needs.

A report by the U.S. Department of Justice accused Alabama prisons of an unacceptable level of violence, including rape and murder.

The DOJ’s two-and-a-half-year investigation found that violence, gangs, drugs, weapons, a culture of sexual abuse and contraband were all intolerably high in the prison and accused corrections officers of acceptance of the violence as normal.

A federal court order has found that Alabama needs well over 2,000 prison guards. The DOJ said that the prisons are chronically understaffed and overcrowded.

State Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville, said Thursday that he visited one prison recently and though the staffing needs were 200 guards, they only had 95.

Dunn said that the new pay scale would allow a new hire with just a high school diploma to make $31,000 a year.

Persons with a two-year associates degree or a four-year degree would earn even more.

DOJ says that they have been unable to finish their report because ADOC has refused DOJ’s subpoenas for thousands of documents on alleged excessive force and sexual abuse by ADOC corrections officers on inmates.

Attorney General Steve Marshall is objecting to the subpoena arguing that DOJ has exceeded its authority and that ADOC does not have the resources to hand over the 68,000 documents including daily intelligence reports.

Currently, ADOC makes corrections officers undergo 12 weeks of academy training so that they are certified at the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training level. Dunn said that other states do not do that and proposed creating a less rigorous correctional security guard position with just six weeks of training.

“The vast majority of systems across the country, to include the Federal Bureau of Prisons, do not do a law enforcement certification,” Dunn said.

Ward said that ADOC should do everything possible to comply with Judge Thompson’s order, and that the Legislature was willing to put up whatever money was needed and to change regulations to comply.

Ward sponsored Senate Bill 303 to raise correction officers’ pay. That bill received a favorable report from the joint committee on Thursday.

ADOC shared the comprehensive “Recruiting and Retaining Correctional Officers” report, compiled by third-party consultant Warren Averett.

The ADOC contracted Warren Averett in 2017 to complete a thorough review of ADOC’s policies, practices and procedures related to recruiting and retaining correctional officers and to make recommendations for improvement.

ADOC said in a statement that it has been working closely with Warren Averett and additional third-party experts to implement recommendations for improving recruitment and retention within Alabama’s prison system.

With new strategies in place, the ADOC has seen significant progress, including the hiring of 47 new corrections officers in March 2019.

“The ADOC has been working diligently on the recommendations provided in the Warren Averett report,” said Dunn. “We are pleased to be able to share the contents of this report and are excited to announce that the current ADOC Academy class is the largest since 2015. With this momentum, recruitment efforts are projected to generate a significant increase than seen in years past.”

Dunn said that ADOC is working hard to comply with the federal court order and to present a plan to the DOJ to resolve their concerns.

“We recognize the magnitude and scope of the challenges our department faces, especially as the U.S. Department of Justice recently identified,” said Dunn. “We have been working tirelessly to implement actionable solutions to address these challenges – such as recruitment – but remain in a difficult position with limited resources that impacts the speed and intensity in which we address these systemic issues. With Governor Ivey leading the way, all stakeholders, including the state legislature and its leadership, the DOJ, and the advocacy community, must work together to form permanent and transformative solutions.”

DOJ gave the state 60 days to present a plan to address the problems found by their investigation or the federal government could sue the state for failing to comply with the Constitutional Amendment forbidding cruel and unusual punishments.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Supreme Court sides with Alabama in COVID-19 voting case

Brandon Moseley

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The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision Thursday blocked a federal district judge’s order that would have made it easier for many Alabamians to vote during the pandemic, issuing an emergency stay of the lower court’s injunction in People First of Alabama v. Merrill.

The court’s more liberal justices dissented, while the five conservative justices voted to strike down the lower court ruling, which had blocked absentee ballot witness requirements in a few Alabama counties and a statewide ban on curbside voting programs.

The decision to grant the stay means that Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s ban on curbside voting remains in place, and he may intervene into any county in Alabama to prevent curbside voting.

Voters in every county in the state must still follow all the required witness, notary and photo ID requirements for absentee ballots.

Federal District Judge Abdul Kallon had found in favor of the plaintiffs and issued an order allowing local officials to implement curbside voting. Merrill and the secretary of state’s office appealed the lower court ruling to the Supreme Court, who issued the emergency stay.

The court could still hear Alabama’s appeal, but the ruling was a blow for the groups representing the plaintiffs in the case. Caren Short is the senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“While we are deeply disappointed with today’s ruling, we look forward to presenting our clients’ case at trial later this summer,” said Short. “Our goal is simple though unfortunately at odds with Alabama officials. We want to ensure that during the COVID-19 pandemic, Alabama voters will not be forced to choose between exercising their fundamental right to vote and protecting their health or the health of a loved one.”

Deuel Ross is the senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

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“We are deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court‘s stay,” said Ross. “Unfortunately, this means that Alabama voters who are at greater risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 will be required to risk their health and violate CDC recommendations in order to vote on July 14. This is occurring at a time when COVID-19 infections are soaring in Alabama and nationwide. Nonetheless, the litigation will continue and we intend to seek relief for our clients and other voters in time for November.”

Plaintiffs argued that making voters go to the polls and wait in line to show a photo-ID would be a bar to voting given the fear of the coronavirus in Alabama. Voters will have to decide whether voting in the July 14 party runoff elections is really worth the risk of possibly contracting the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and possibly dying.

At least 14 Alabamians died from COVID-19 on Thursday, taking the state death toll to 961. Additionally, 1,162 Alabamians tested positive for the coronavirus.

The state argues that voter ID and other security measures are necessary to protect the integrity of the vote and prevent voting fraud. Since his election as Alabama secretary of state, Merrill has said that it is his goal to “make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

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Jones calls for more federal funding, support for state departments of labor

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U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-Ala.) today is urging Senate leadership for additional federal funding and support for state departments of labor, which have been overwhelmed by the wave of unemployment insurance claims. This also comes as disturbing reports emerge out of Montgomery, where Alabamians have been camping out overnight outside of an unemployment claims center in search of help with their claims.

“As the nation continues to struggle with the health and economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress must do more to help those who are suffering from unemployment as a result. Alabama’s unemployment rate in May was 9.9%, and my home state is facing a 70% increase in the evictions of renters,” Senator Jones, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, wrote. “This hardship is sadly not unique to Alabama, and Americans across the country are struggling to pay their bills, to keep the lights on, and to put food on their tables.

A recent article in the Montgomery Advertiser detailed a line of unemployed Alabamians that has formed for weeks in a parking lot outside an Alabama Department of Labor (ADOL) claim processing center, with many sleeping outside overnight in the rain or participating in a “black market” system of selling spots in the line.

“While the ADOL has noted that an in-person presence is not required to file or resolve unemployment claims, technical glitches and difficulties reaching ADOL staff have so frustrated claimants that for many, traveling to Montgomery seems to be the only remaining option. These claimants seek such urgent relief that they have been camping out overnight in the hopes that their claims will be resolved.  To make matters worse, Alabama’s unemployment fund is on track to become insolvent within the next month or two,” Senator Jones continued.

“As we continue to observe the grave status of unemployment and its repercussions on our nation, I urge the leadership of the Senate to consider including language that addresses unemployment issues in the next pandemic relief legislation in July. I respectfully urge the inclusion of language providing greater availability of federal funds for state Departments of Labor, to ensure that hardworking Americans can rely on temporary monetary aid to help feed their families and keep a roof over their heads during these trying times,” the letter concluded.

Senator Jones has been a strong advocate for support for working Alabamians throughout the COVID-19 crisis. He has introduced legislation to cover the wages and benefits of employees of affected businesses and non-profits until the economic and public health crisis is resolved, and during the negotiations for the CARES Act, he proposed the Small Business Lifeline fund to direct financial assistance to workers through payroll processing companies. Senator Jones has also called for the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration to allow payroll processing companies to disburse the CARES Act small business loans to reduce complications and expedite salaries to workers who have been impacted by the coronavirus.

Full text of the letter can be found here and below.

Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:

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As the nation continues to struggle with the health and economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress must do more to help those who are suffering from unemployment as a result. Alabama’s unemployment rate in May was 9.9%, and my home state is facing a 70% increase in the evictions of renters.  This hardship is sadly not unique to Alabama, and Americans across the country are struggling to pay their bills, to keep the lights on, and to put food on their tables.

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs during this pandemic, and have turned to the unemployment benefits provided by programs in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. These newly created programs have created a much-needed lifeline for folks across the country. Most notably, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program were created to ensure states would be able to expand coverage of unemployment benefits given the outsized nature of the pandemic on employment.

However, the majority of State Departments of Labor have been experiencing great difficulties in updating their technical systems to withstand the sudden influx of numerous claims, disbursing benefit payments efficiently to claimants, and effectively communicating with claimants who may be frustrated with the speed at which their claims are processed.

The Alabama Department of Labor (ADOL) has disbursed nearly $2 billion in COVID-19 related unemployment compensation benefits under the PUA, FPUC, and PEUC programs. While ADOL has been working incredibly hard for Alabamians, phone call lines remain jammed, and benefits take significant time to process. ADOL has received 576,314 unemployment claims to date, and the Department is staffed enough to field less than 4% of the calls it receives per day. Since the crisis began, ADOL typically receives 210,000 calls per day; yet only 6,000 to 7,000 of those calls can be processed each day.

Put simply, ADOL is overwhelmed by the massive influx of claims. An article in the Montgomery Advertiser, enclosed with this letter, details the difficulties that Alabamians are experiencing.  In an effort to address claims more efficiently, ADOL opened an in-person claims center in Montgomery, Alabama, but it too was inundated by the unmanageable number of claimants.  While the ADOL has noted that an in-person presence is not required to file or resolve unemployment claims, technical glitches and difficulties reaching ADOL staff have so frustrated claimants that for many, traveling to Montgomery seems to be the only remaining option. These claimants seek such urgent relief that they have been camping out overnight in the hopes that their claims will be resolved.  To make matters worse, Alabama’s unemployment fund is on track to become insolvent within the next month or two.

This is not the first time in recent times that state unemployment funds were in need of aid from the federal government. During the Great Recession, states that exhausted unemployment benefit funds were able to borrow from the Treasury Department to strengthen their funds. Given these dire economic times for state and local governments, the ability to access federal funds should be available once again to cover the costs associated with unemployment benefits.

As we continue to observe the grave status of unemployment and its repercussions on our nation, I urge the leadership of the Senate to consider including language that addresses unemployment issues in the next pandemic relief legislation in July. I respectfully urge the inclusion of language providing greater availability of federal funds for state Departments of Labor, to ensure that hardworking Americans can rely on temporary monetary aid to help feed their families and keep a roof over their heads during these trying times.

Sincerely,

Senator Doug Jones

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Byrne opposes Democratic infrastructure bill

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, this week voted against a Democratic infrastructure bill — H.R. 2, the Moving Forward Act — which he said was crafted without any input from Republicans.

“Democrats and Republicans have traditionally worked together to craft highway bills, but Speaker Pelosi continues to allow even bipartisan priorities like road and bridge funding bills to become vehicles for her radical agenda,” Byrne said, “As the Democrat Chairman noted, this bill is simply the radical Green New Deal disguised as a highway bill. In fact, this bill would fund partisan priorities totally unrelated to transportation infrastructure, and I cannot support such reckless spending of taxpayer dollars. The American people need a highway bill, and we will need both parties at the table working together to give them one.”

“The Democrat Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and lead author of this bill responded to Republican criticism by acknowledging it seeks to implement “the principles of the Green New Deal,” Byrne concluded.

The Democratic controlled House passed H.R. 2, but even before it had passed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said that the bill would not be voted on in the Senate.

“So naturally this nonsense is not going anywhere in the Senate,” McConnell said. “It will just join the list of absurd House proposals that were only drawn up to show fealty to the radical left.”

The $1.5 trillion green infrastructure plan would provide billions to repair the nation’s roads and bridges, but it also funds broadband, schools and hospitals. It would also force states to commit to reducing greenhouse gases and other climate measures in order to get any of the road money.

President Donald Trump threatened to veto the bill if it gets that far.

Congressman Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, also voted against H.R. 2.

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“Nancy Pelosi & her Socialist comrades are hellbent on destroying America,” Brooks claimed. “They won’t stop spending until America is bankrupt. They covet economic disaster so they can rebuild a Socialist America under the guise of providing economic relief. In this instance, Socialism comes cloaked as an infrastructure bill.”

Byrne represents Alabama’s 1st Congressional District. He is not seeking another term in Congress.

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After long lines, in-person unemployment assistance will be appointment only

Eddie Burkhalter

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After news accounts of people driving across Alabama to camp out in a Montgomery parking lot overnight in hopes of getting help with their unemployment claims, the Alabama Department of Labor on Thursday announced new guidelines for seeing a worker in person. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting large numbers of unemployed seeking help left the state’s Department of Labor struggling to process the thousands of applications that pour in daily.

The department said in a Facebook post Thursday that instead of continuing seeing people on a first come, first serve basis, beginning Monday, July 6, people will now have to make an appointment to be seen. Only 300 appointments will be available daily. 

The department has also changed the location to receive assistance from the Dunn-Oliver Acadome on the campus of Alabama State University to the Crump Senior Community Center, located at 1751 Cong W L Dickinson Drive in Montgomery. 

To register for an appointment, visit the department’s website here. Slots for appointments will be at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Face masks are mandatory and temperatures will be taken on site, according to the department’s post.

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