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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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ADPH urges Alabamians to have “safer-at-home” July 4th celebrations

This year, amid a global pandemic, the Alabama Department of Public Health is urging Alabamians to celebrate at home to avoid catching or spreading the virus.

Brandon Moseley

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Saturday is the Fourth of July, a day when many families hold elaborate celebrations with their friends. It is a time for friends, family, fireworks, barbecue, celebrating our nation’s independence and enjoying the summer weather.

But this year, amid a global pandemic, the Alabama Department of Public Health is urging Alabamians to celebrate at home to avoid catching or spreading the virus.

“Independence Day is a wonderful celebration for all Americans,” the ADPH said on their website. “As we move toward this major holiday, we want to share some recommendations and reminders for local governmental officials.”

The novel strain of the coronavirus is the largest pandemic to deeply impact this country in a century. At least 57,236 Americans were diagnosed with the virus on Thursday alone and 131,533 Americans have died, including 983 Alabamians.

A few simple steps can greatly reduce your chances of being exposed and exposing others to COVID-19. Everyone should practice good hygiene, cover coughs and sneezes, avoid touching your face and wash hands often. Avoid close contact with people who are sick, even inside your home, and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others not in your household.

The use of cloth face coverings or masks when in public can greatly reduce the risk of transmission, particularly if the infected individual wears a mask. Many people are contagious before they begin to show symptoms — or may never develop symptoms but are still able to infect others.

The ADPH emphasized that there is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19, so the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also warns that everyone should avoid large gatherings.

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This CDC video explains more about how large gatherings can spread the virus.

According to ADPH, there are no specific treatments for illnesses caused by human coronaviruses at this time.

There is ongoing medical research regarding treatment of COVID-19. Although most people will recover on their own, you can do some things to help relieve your symptoms, including taking medications to relieve pain and fever, using a room humidifier or take a hot shower to help ease a sore throat and cough and drinking plenty of fluids if you are mildly sick. Stay home and get plenty of rest.

Alabama is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases in the month of June and into early July.

The state reported at least 1,758 positive cases on Friday alone, the most since the pandemic began. In the past seven days, 7,645 cases have been reported, the most of any seven-day period since the pandemic began.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases — used to smooth out daily variability and inconsistencies in case reporting — surpassed 1,000 for the first time Friday.

Since the first coronavirus case was identified in Alabama in early March, 41,362 Alabamians have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

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Byrne secures authorization for additional Austal ship in NDAA

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, this week announced that the House Armed Services Committee approved the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 by a vote of 56 to 0. The bill includes a Byrne amendment authorizing $260 million to construct an additional Expeditionary Fast Transport vessel at Austal Mobile. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for a vote for passage.

“Today’s defense authorization bill received strong bipartisan support and will ensure that the men and women of our military have the resources necessary to protect American interests and safety,” Byrne said. “Like most legislation, the bill isn’t perfect, but the committee’s willingness to work together towards a common goal should be a template for the entire House of Representatives to follow.”

“It is great news for Southwest Alabama and our entire nation that the committee accepted my amendment to authorize the construction of an additional EPF at the Austal shipyard in Mobile,” Byrne said. “Passage of this amendment acknowledges the critical role the 4,000 men and women at Austal Mobile play in supporting our nation’s military readiness and moving us closer to our goal of a 355-ship fleet. In fact, just this week we reached a landmark when the Austal-built USS Oakland LCS was delivered to the Navy, becoming the 300th ship in our Navy’s fleet. Construction of an additional EPF will strengthen Austal’s footprint in Mobile and bolster its contributions to our national defense, and I hope Congress moves quickly to pass this bill into law.”

The NDAA sets policy and authorizes funding for the entire United States military and has been passed by the House each year for the previous 59 years. The bill is expected to receive a vote in the House as soon as this month.

An Expeditionary Fast Transport is a 338-foot shallow draft aluminum catamaran designed to be multi-mission capable of intra-theater personnel and cargo lift, providing combatant commanders high-speed sealift mobility with inherent cargo handling capability and agility to achieve positional advantage over operational distances. Bridging the gap between low-speed sealift and high-speed airlift, EPFs transport personnel, equipment and supplies over operational distances with access to littoral offload points including austere, minor and degraded ports in support of the Global War on Terrorism/Theater Security Cooperation Program, Intra-theater Operational/Littoral Maneuver and Sustainment and Seabasing. EPFs enable the rapid projection, agile maneuver and sustainment of modular, tailored forces in response to a wide range of military and civilian contingencies such as Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. It is a non-combatant transport vessel characterized by its high volume, high speed, and flexibility. Its large flight deck can accommodate a variety of aircraft.

The EPF is designed to transport 600 short tons of military cargo 1,200 nautical miles at an average speed of 35 knots in Sea State 3. The ships are capable of operating in shallow-draft ports and waterways, interfacing with roll-on/roll-off discharge facilities and on/off-loading a combat-loaded Abrams Main Battle Tank (M1A2). The EPF includes a flight deck for helicopter operations and an off-load ramp that allow vehicles to quickly drive off the ship. The ramp is suitable for the types of austere piers and quay walls common in developing countries. The ship’s shallow draft (under 15 feet) will further enhance littoral operations and port access. This makes the EPF an extremely flexible asset for support of a wide range of operations including maneuver and sustainment, relief operations in small or damaged ports, flexible logistics support or as the key enabler for rapid transport.

EPF has a crew of 26 Civilian Mariners with airline style seating for 312 embarked troops and fixed berthing for an additional 104. Military Sealift Command (MSC) operates and sustains the EPFs, which will be allocated via the Global Force Management for Theater Security Cooperation, service unique missions, intra-theater sealift and special missions.

Byrne represents Alabama’s 1st Congressional District.

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Courts

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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Congress

Jones calls for more federal funding, support for state Departments of Labor

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U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-AL, today is urging Senate leadership for additional federal funding and support for the 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 percent and my home state is facing a 70 percent 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 benthe efits 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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