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State releases some prison staffing figures, argues for use of lesser-trained correctional officers

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections in a recent court filing Friday argues that a new form of correctional officer being hired to staff Alabama’s understaffed, deadly prisons are up to the task. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center – the plaintiff in the lawsuit – and the federal judge overseeing the case, have both expressed concern over ADOC’s increased use of basic correctional officers (BCOs).  

One longtime correctional officer tells APR that many fully-trained correctional officers (COs) share that concern, and worry that the rapid hiring of the lesser-paid, lesser-trained officers will continue to result in COs quitting their jobs. 

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in a Dec. 6 hearing asked attorneys for Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) about a decline in the number of COs and an increase in BCOs working in the prisons. Thompson had previously ordered the state to hire 2,000 additional correctional officers as part of an ongoing lawsuit over the state’s handling of mental health in prisons. 

“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.” 

ADOC attorneys in the Dec. 20 court filing argued that BCOs receive more-than-adequate training to do their jobs, and that the creation of the position “significantly increased ADOC’s correctional staffing levels.” 

“Since implementing the BCO position in May 2019, ADOC hired more than 340 BCOs. In fact, 235 BCOs completed their pre-service training and are working in ADOC’s facilities,” the filing reads. “More than one hundred (100) BCOs are scheduled to attend ADOC’s next BCO training in early 2020. Moreover, ADOC completed the initial hiring procedures for an additional 368 BCO candidates except for the background checks.”   

BCOs receive 240 hours of pre-service training, which ADOC’s filing stated addresses the same comprehensive set of topics as the correctional officers’ training. COs receive 400 hours of training are are APOST certified while BCO’s are not. 

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“BCOs are not APOST-certified law enforcement officers and, therefore, are not required to receive firearms training or meet APOST requirements for physical fitness,” the filing reads. 

The need for more correctional officers also comes as the U.S. Department of Justice remains undecided on whether to take over the state’s prison system following the April release of the department’s report that highlights rampant sexual assaults, physical assaults and deaths inside the prisons. The total number of Alabama prisoners who died in 2019 as a result of murder, suspected drug overdoses or suicides is at least 27. 

Attorneys for ADOC in the filing wrote that the creation of BCOs came as a result of recommendations from experts ordered by the court to study the departments staffing problems, and that neither the court nor the plaintiffs objected to the expert’s report recommendations.  

Additionally, ADOC employees another classification of officer, called a cubical correctional officer (CCO) who are being hired to replace positions once filled by fully trained officers, and receive 80 hours of training instead of the full 12 weeks. CCOs aren’t allowed any contact with inmates. As of Sept. 30 there were 117 CCOs on staff. 

An SPLC attorney told APR on Dec. 19 that the organization does not believe that ADOC should be allowed to count cubical correctional officers toward the judge’s order to hire 2,000 additional correctional officers. 

In a separate joint filing Friday ADOC lists staffing figures which show that from June 30, 2019, to Sept. 30 the number of COs fell from 1,081 to 1,040 while the number of BCOs increased from 56 to 182. 

“…the incorrect suggestion that BCOs constitute lower tier officers with less authority could unfairly and unjustifiably result in less respect from inmates and BCOs’ peers,” wrote ADOC attorneys in Friday’s filing. 

A correctional officer who spoke to APR on Dec. 15, who asked that his identity be kept private for fear of retribution to speak openly about the matter, said that he and other longtime correctional officers are worried that BCOs are already being taken advantage of by some inmates, many who see the new officers as lower in position and easier to manipulate. 

APR confirmed the officer’s identity and is withholding the name of prison he works at to further protect his identity. He has worked as a correctional officer in Alabama prisons for nearly 20 years. 

The officer said a large percentage of his prison’s correctional staff are BCOs, and that they’re are tasked with doing all of the same jobs as COs, with the exception of transporting inmates or any role that requires them to carry firearms. He said there’s concern that the lesser-paid COs are filling positions that should be staffed with better payed COs. 

“They’re fed up with the system,” he said of COs who are leaving for other opportunities. “They’ve raised the salaries here and there, but you just have to put the salaries on an even playing field to what you’re dealing with every day.” 

The officer also said there are also concerns that BCOs, who have less training and “less to lose,” will be more likely to smuggle in contraband to make additional money. 

Contraband inside prisons has been a major for some of the violence and suspected drug overdoses, with raids this year finding many hundreds of weapons, drugs and cell phones. 

The U.S. Department of Justice’s  April report also noted that high contraband levels are contributing to the violence and sexual abuse in the prison system.

In February police searching through the St. Clair Correctional facility found 160 weapons, 48 cell phones, 110 grams of Marijuana, and 276 grams of the synthetic drug flakka. 

At the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore in April police found 356 weapons, 91 grams of meth, 98 grams of marijuana, cocaine, more than 400 assorted pills and 16 cell phones.

“I think it’s going to end up being less safe,” the officer said of the state’s decision to place so many BCOs in prisons.

APR, in an email to an ADOC spokeswoman on Dec. 16, listed the officer’s concerns, but the ADOC declined to respond.

 

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Alabama inmate killed by another inmate at Ventress Correctional

Eddie Burkhalter

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via the Alabama Department of Corrections

A Birmingham man serving at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton was killed by another inmate, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

Dennis Benson, 40, who was serving a 36-month sentence for possession of a controlled substance and receiving stolen property, died March 30 after being attacked by another inmate, ADOC said in a statement. 

“The ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and the fatal actions taken against Benson by another inmate are being thoroughly investigated,” the department said in a statement.

Benson’s cause of death is pending a full autopsy, and more information will be available upon the conclusion of the investigation into his death, according to the department. 

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Attorney general partners with Facebook to stop price-gouging

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Friday announced a partnership with Facebook to address price-gouging on the social media site by people looking to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There is no question that unscrupulous operators are trying to take advantage of Alabamians looking to buy basic necessities to protect and sustain themselves and their families during the ongoing coronavirus epidemic,” Marshall said in a statement. “What’s more, much of that illegal activity is centered online because many consumers find it easier to purchase supplies on the internet due to lack of local availability or self-quarantining. As my office seeks ways to protect our consumers, I am pleased to announce that Facebook is one of several major e-commerce platforms to respond to my call to participate in a coordinated effort to identify and shutdown online price gouging.”

Facebook has agreed to review and remove price-gouging listings and advertisements from the website, according to a press release form Marshall’s office.

The press release from Marshall’s office notes that Facebook has already banned advertising or sale of medical masks, hand sanitizer, surface disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 testing kits, and the site also as prohibited products “cures” or products that claim to prevent someone from contracting the virus. 

Recent research by Digital Citizens Alliance showed, however, that many of those banned products and advertisements continue to appear on Facebook, despite the company’s March 6 announcement prohibiting them.

Alabama’s price-gouging law went into effect on March 13 upon Gov. Kay Ivey’s declaration of a state of emergency.

“Although what constitutes an unconscionable price is not specifically set forth in state law, a price that is 25% or more above the average price charged in the same area within the last 30 days — unless the increase can be attributed to a reasonable cost in connection with the rental or sale of the commodity — is a prima facie case of unconscionable pricing,” according to the release.

To file an illegal price gouging report visit the Alabama Attorney General’s Consumer Interest Division at  https://www.alabamaag.gov/consumercomplaint, or call 1-800-392-5658 to receive a form by mail to complete and return.

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Families, advocates ask Alabama to release at-risk inmates amid COVID-19 outbreak

Eddie Burkhalter

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Contributed photo

When Amber Faircloth learned Thursday of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in an Alabama prison, she worried that her husband, who has cancer, could be in jeopardy. 

Her husband, who’s serving time at Limestone prison, is one of more than 1,000 inmates most at risk of serious complications or death if the virus spreads throughout Alabama’s prisons. 

Amber and a group of criminal justice reform advocates have asked the Alabama Department of Corrections to consider releasing inmates who are more at risk from the virus, but the department told APR on Friday that for now, there are no plans to do so. 

Justin Faircloth just had a second round of chemotherapy Wednesday and was told by a doctor before treatments began that his stage-4 colon cancer could take his life within six months. 

“We might as well kiss this world goodbye if it gets in here,” Justin Faircloth said in a phone interview with APR on Saturday, speaking of the virus.

He’d undergone a previous round of chemotherapy before being arrested in December on a probation revocation charge, and once in the state’s custody those treatments stopped, AL.com’s Connor Sheets reported in February   

Treatments have since restarted, but Amber worries that his liver is so damaged and his immune system so weak that he’d surely die if infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. She’s asking that he and others in his condition be released before an outbreak occurs. 

“Even a common cold can put him in the hospital,” she said. “And it’s not just him.” 

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ADOC has a large population of older inmates, and many with serious medical conditions, which experts say puts them at much greater risk for complications and death from COVID-19. The tight quarters and overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons — for which the state has repeatedly been reprimanded by federal courts and the DOJ — make them a particularly dangerous place for a COVID-19 outbreak.

Her husband was in the infirmary Thursday night, she said, but it was so crowded that he had to sleep with two other inmates, inches apart, in what inmates call a “boat,” which are plastic stackable bunks that rest on the floor. 

“He’s on a chemo pump, and he’s on the floor,” Amber said. “That’s inhumane and unsanitary.” 

On Friday, he was moved back to the general population, where the men sleep in cramped, open dormitories close to one another. Prisons are perfect environments for rapid viral outbreaks, health experts say. 

“We’re in such close quarters. We use the same toilets. We use the same sinks. We touch the same handles on the microwave and the same remote controls,” Justin said, adding that correctional officers are just as worried about a breakout inside the prison as the inmates.

Justin said inmates are given the same lye soap bars they’ve always gotten, but said he’s not seen any instructional material to let inmates know about the danger of the virus or how to protect from it.

Justin’s criminal history shows signs of years of struggles with drug addiction. The 34-year-old has been arrested for drug possession, theft, resisting arrest and burglary. 

“I ended up relapsing and did commit a crime,” Justin said. “But I should be able to wear an ankle bracelet or something. Be monitored from my house.”

An administrative employee at a state prison tested positive for COVID-19, and all staff who came into contact with the person are under a 14-day quarantine, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced Thursday. ADOC hasn’t stated in which prison the infected person works. 

ADOC also hasn’t said how many, if any, inmates or other staff have been tested for the virus, but in a statement Thursday, the department said it “has the ability to test inmates within the facilities; however, testing will only occur after the ADPH approves a physician’s order.” 

Alabama’s prisons were at 169 percent capacity in December, before Holman prison closed to almost all inmates and moved the rest to other overpopulated facilities. 

Amber is asking the state to consider releasing her husband, perhaps place him on electronic monitoring, and said those in his condition should be removed from what could quickly become a death trap. 

It’s a call shared by Alabamians for Fair Justice, a group of criminal justice reform advocates and formerly incarcerated people. The group wrote a letter to ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn on Wednesday that urged the department to act before an outbreak might occur. 

One of the specific recommendations from the group is to release the 1,000 or so inmates who are at high risk of serious complications or death from the virus. 

In this light, the Bureau of Pardons and Parole’s decision to cancel upcoming parole hearings is counterproductive. We call on BPP to work with ADOC to expand upon existing medical parole provisions in order to expedite the release of people from the populations at greatest risk,” the group’s letter reads. 

The group also recommended that ADOC develop reentry plans, identify transitional housing and, where possible, refer the released inmates to outside medical and mental health providers.

In a statement to APR on Friday, an ADOC spokeswoman said, for now, the department doesn’t anticipate any non-routine releases. 

“The ADOC is continuing to work closely with Governor Ivey’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and infectious disease control experts to mitigate the potential spread of the virus,” the statement reads. “Maintaining the safety, security, and well-being of our inmate population, staff and the public remains the ADOC’s highest priority.”

“The ADOC’s Office of Health Services is working closely with our contracted health services vendor to monitor and protect high-risk inmates, including those with pre-existing medical conditions. At this time, the Department does not anticipate conducting any non-routine releases. We are closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19, and will be making additional operational and preventative decisions as this situation continues to evolve.”

ADOC has taken other steps to mitigate the dangers of a COVID-19 outbreak. The department has suspended visitations, begun screening staff for fever, suspended inmate co-pays and transfers between prisons. 

On Friday, ADOC announced that state prisons would stop taking in new inmates for 30 days.

It’s a move that might help prevent the virus from getting into prisons, but it shifts that danger to county jails, and it’s not sustainable. Prison systems across the country are coming to terms with what could turn into a very deadly situation very quickly. 

In Los Angeles earlier this week, low-level inmates were being released from some jails, The Los Angeles Times reported, and New York City this week began releasing more vulnerable inmates with medical conditions and those serving for minor crimes. 

“I think the threat level is at 10 now,” said Scott Kernan, a former secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, speaking to ABC News. “The [nation’s] corrections leaders are struggling to figure out what the national response will be.”

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Alabama prisons halt intakes from county jails during COVID-19 outbreak

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections on Friday announced a 30-day moratorium on taking in inmates from the county jails amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

ADOC on Thursday said an administrative employee in a prison tested positive for the virus, and that all staff who came into contact with the person are under a 14-day quarantine. It was the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the state’s prisons. ADOC said no inmates have tested positive. 

The department said in a statement that suspension of new intakes includes “but is not limited to, new commitments, court returns, and parolees and probationers…” 

Statement from ADOC: 

“The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) continues to take steps necessary to maintain the safety, security, and well-being of our inmate population, staff, and the public. The Department is working closely with Governor Ivey’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), and infectious disease control experts to mitigate the spread of the virus. Our continued and collective efforts have allowed for the implementation of new preventative practices and procedures in response to this rapidly evolving situation.

 “Effective today, the Department is placing a 30-day moratorium on new intakes from county jails based on Governor Ivey’s declared State of Emergency related to COVID-19. This restriction includes, but is not limited to, new commitments, court returns, and parolees and probationers who are revoked or sanctioned to a dunk. During this time, the Department will continue to receive inmates with severe medical or mental health conditions, subject to the usual review process by the Department’s Office of Health Services. However, additional health screenings will be implemented at the facility level to ensure any inmate is not symptomatic prior to entry. While the 30-day moratorium is in effect, the ADOC’s intake procedures will be reviewed closely and intake dorm space will be assessed thoroughly. At the end of this 30-day period, the Department will assess our interim intake process.

“In addition to implementing system-wide preventative measures to prevent the virus from entering our facilities, the ADOC also is modifying internal protocols to best serve our inmate population who have been impacted by these altered processes and various safety precautions. Effective immediately, the ADOC will extend both inmate yard time and snack line services at all our facilities. Other protocol adjustments remain under consideration for possible implementation.

 “We are continuing to diligently monitor the situation, working closely with the ADPH and adhering to CDC-recommended health and hygiene guidelines. As noted yesterday, March 19, the ADOC has been notified that an administrative employee tested positive for COVID-19. All individuals within the Department who have been in direct contact with the individual who tested positive remain in a 14-day self-quarantine period, and are being monitored by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) for signs and symptoms due to direct exposure. Maintaining the safety, security, and well-being of our overall system remains the ADOC’s highest priority.”

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