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Federal judge concerned over prison staffing, undertrained fill-ins

Eddie Burkhalter

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A federal judge last week pressed attorneys representing the Alabama Department of Corrections about staffing problems that the plaintiff’s attorneys argued may run afoul of a court order to increase correctional officers in the state’s overcrowded, understaffed prisons. 

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in the Dec. 6 hearing, first reported by Alabama Daily News,  asked ADOC attorneys questions about how many of the newly hired correctional officers were fully trained officers and how many were lesser trained and working in roles that do not put some into direct contact with inmates.

Thompson had previously ordered ADOC to hire an additional 2,000 correctional officers. The judge in June 2017 declared the mental health care system in Alabama prisons to be “horrendously inadequate” and had resulted in “skyrocketing” inmate suicide rates. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against ADOC in 2014 over the treatment of prisoners with medical and mental health needs. 

“Now, your statistics show an increase in correctional officer staffing.  How are you doing in increasing just correctional officers? Are you increasing correctional officers as well as getting these what you call BCOs?” Thompson asked lawyers for ADOC at Friday’s hearing, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by APR on Wednesday. 

Thompson was referring to basic correction officers (BCO’s) which is a newly created position which puts recruits through six weeks of training instead of 12.  BCO’s can assist with inmates, but cannot transport inmates alone or conduct any role that requires them to have firearms, according to the hearing’s transcript. 

Matthew Reeves, one of the attorneys representing ADOC in the lawsuit, replied that the number of full correctional officers “are not substantially increasing” but that the department hopes the additional basic correction officers and cubical correction officers hired will “begin to fill in those roles.” ADOC has hired about 200 BCO’s within the last quarter, Reeves told the court. 

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Cubical correctional officers (CCO’s) are being hired to replace positions once filled by fully trained officers, and receive 80 hours of training instead of the full 12 weeks, and aren’t allowed any contact with inmates. CCO’s are paid about $5,000 less annually than fully trained officers.

“The reason I’m asking you that is that your retention percentages actually went down from, I believe, 92 or 93 to 85.  Which to me would probably reflect a falling number of correctional officers rather than BCOs, since the BCOs are new. So I’m wondering whether your actual correctional officers are decreasing while you’re getting these BCOs?” Thompson asked the attorneys. 

“I think if you look in the short term, perhaps that is true,” Reeves said, but added that those are short-term numbers and that there are “cycles, and we think we’re in that process.” 

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“I guess an overall concern is that, you know, you get what you pay for,” Thompson said. “And if you’re paying these people less and they have less training, then the quality of what the system is providing is not going to meet what’s needed for, say, a correctional officer or what a correctional officer could provide.” 

Attorneys for the SPLC also expressed concern over the inclusion of BCO’s and CCO’s in the latest ADOC staffing report’s figures for correctional officers, which the attorneys argued may not meet the court’s goal of hiring 2,000 full correctional officers by 2020. 

“Plaintiffs have concern with counting those people, who are not certified officers and are not allowed to interact directly with people who are incarcerated, towards the correctional staffing numbers,” C.J. Sandley, staff attorney for the SPLC told the court. 

An ADOC spokeswomen responded to APR’s questions Wednesday that asked or a breakdown of the number of all three categories of correctional officer, but APR hadn’t received those answers as of Wednesday evening. 

State prisons in June were at only 37 percent of required staffing levels, set by court order in Oct. 2018, according to ADOC staffing numbers provided to APR on Wednesday by the SPLC. 

Correctional officer staffing at the Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton was at just 29 percent of the court-ordered required 222 officers in June, according to ADOC’s figures. Ventress inmate Michael Smith died on Dec. 5 after a “use of force” incident at the prison that resulted in two officers being placed on leave. 

At the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, where inmate Steven Davis, 35, of Graysville was beaten in a “use of force” incident with officers that resulted in Davis’s death on Oct. 5, correctional officer staffing was at just 30 percent of the required 365 officers. 

The understaffing problem is even worse in many of the state’s most overcrowded prisons. The Bibb correctional facility employed just 84 of the 311 required officers in June, while the inmate population was at 196 percent of capacity, according to ADOC’s figures. 

Additionally,  SPLC attorneys told the court about concerns that between June and September 39 prison supervisors left their positions. In September the prisons employed just 320 of the required 500 correctional supervisors,  according to the SPLC’s attorney in the transcript. 

“Supervisors are very important for ensuring that, for example, the remedies in this case are being implemented,” C.J. Sandley told the judge. “The Court’s suicide prevention — immediate suicide prevention remedies order, for example, relies on supervisors to make sure that correctional officer rounds are happening in segregation.  So that’s just one example of why they’re important.” 

The U.S. Department of Justice in April released a detailed report informing Alabama officials that the state may be in vilation of prisoners’ Constitutional rights to protection from physical violence and sexual assault while incarcerated by housing them in understaffed, unsafe facilities.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Alabama Department of Corrections investigating inmate death

Robert Earl Adams, 40, died on Aug. 5 and although no foul play is suspected, a department spokeswoman in a message to APR said the exact cause of death is pending an autopsy.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Corrections is investigating the death of an inmate at the Donaldson Correctional Facility.

Robert Earl Adams, 40, died on Aug. 5 and although no foul play is suspected, a department spokeswoman in a message to APR said the exact cause of death is pending an autopsy.

“While Adams’ exact cause of death is pending the results of a full autopsy, at the time of his passing inmate Adams was not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, was not under quarantine following direct exposure to an inmate or staff member who previously had tested positive, and was not in medical isolation as a result of a positive COVID-19 test,” said ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in the message.

Because Adams was not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, he had not been tested, Rose said.

An ADOC worker who contacted APR Friday morning about the death, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions from ADOC administrators, said it’s suspected that Adams may have overdosed after being given a cigarette laced with a drug.

Adams is at least the sixteenth state inmate to die this year from either homicide, suspected drug overdose or suicide. Additionally, fifteen inmates and two prison workers have died after testing positive for COVID-19.

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Alabama House speaker addresses arrest of Rep. Will Dismukes on theft charge

Eddie Burkhalter

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Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, turned himself in at the Montgomery County Detention Center Thursday.

Speaker of the Alabama House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, on Friday said a state representative arrested and charged with theft on Thursday is alleged to have committed the theft before he was elected and is due a presumption of innocence. 

Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, turned himself in at the Montgomery County Detention Center Thursday after a warrant for his arrest was issued for felony theft from a flooring business where he worked. The theft occurred at his place of employment between the years 2016 to 2018, Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey said Thursday.

“Like all Americans, Rep. Dismukes is due the presumption of innocence, and it is important to note that the crime of which he is accused was said to have occurred well before he announced his candidacy for the Alabama House,” McCutcheon said in a statement Friday. “As a former law enforcement officer, I have faith in the criminal justice process and trust that he will receive a full and fair hearing.” 

“Both Democrats and Republicans have been accused of similar crimes in the past, and we cannot tolerate such behavior whether the lawmaker involved has a D or an R beside their name,” McCutcheon continued. 

Dismukes in recent weeks has faced a torrent of calls for his resignation in recent weeks after posting to Facebook an image of himself attending a birthday celebration for the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Dismukes has said he has no plans to resign, but if convicted of felony theft, Dismukes would be removed from office.

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Arrest warrant issued for Rep. Will Dismukes for felony theft

Dismukes is charged with first-degree theft of property in connection with a theft that occurred at his place of employment between the years 2016 to 2018.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, has been accused of theft of property, a Class B felony. (WSFA)

An arrest warrant has been issued for Alabama State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, for felony theft from a business where he worked, Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey said Thursday.

Dismukes is charged with first-degree theft of property in connection with a theft that occurred at his place of employment between the years 2016 to 2018, Bailey said during a press conference.

Bailey said the charge is a Class B felony and levied when a person steals in excess of $2,500 and that “I will tell you that the alleged amount is a lot more than that.” 

“The warrant has just been signed, his attorney has been notified and we are giving him until late this afternoon to turn himself in,” Bailey said.

Bailey said the employer contacted the district attorney’s office with a complaint about the theft on May 20, and after reviewing bank records and interviewing witnesses, the decision was made to charge Dismukes with the theft. 

WSFA reported Thursday that the theft occurred at Dismukes’ former employer, Weiss Commercial Flooring Inc. in East Montgomery. Bailey did not provide any more specifics on the charge but said the employer signed the arrest warrant after countless hours of investigation on the part of the DA’s office.

While the charge stems from a complaint filed months ago, Dismukes been in the headlines recently and faced a torrent of calls for his resignation in recent weeks after posting to Facebook an image of himself attending a birthday celebration for the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

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The event was hosted by an individual with close ties to the League of the South, a hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In response, Dismukes stepped down from his post as a pastor at an Autauga County Baptist church but defiantly refused to step down from the Legislature.

If convicted of the felony, Dismukes would be immediately removed from his seat in the Alabama House, to which he was elected in 2018.

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In June, the Alabama Democratic Party called for his resignation over previous social media posts glorifying the Confederacy.

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Alabama Department of Corrections investigating death of 28-year-old inmate

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Corrections is investigating the death of a 28-year-old inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility as a possible suicide. 

Charles Labarron Braggs was found unresponsive by prison officials in his cell on Monday, and life-saving attempts were unsuccessful, the department said in a message to APR on Thursday.

Braggs was not on suicide watch at the time of his death, and the department said in the statement that there’s “no evidence of a use-of-force incident” and that the investigation into his death is ongoing. 

“Use-of-force” refers to instances when correctional officers use physical force with an inmate. 

Braggs’ death is at least the sixth suspected suicide among those serving in Alabama prisons so far this year, according to the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

The U.S. Justice Department in April 2019, released a report detailing what federal investigators found were systemic problems of violence, sexual assaults, drugs, high levels of homicides and suicides and corruption in Alabama prisons.

ADOC continues to defend the department in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center over mental health care and treatment of inmates in state prisons, arguing in the complaint that the department was indifferent to the health of those inmates, who were dying by suicide in greater and greater numbers.

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The U.S. Department of Justice last week released a scathing report detailing systemic excessive use-of-force by Alabama correctional officers against inmates in the state’s prisons for men. The federal government believes the acts of violence against inmates violates the Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

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