Thursday the House and Senate General Fund budget committees were in Montgomery for a rare joint session as all of the State General Fund (SGF) department heads made their 2021 budget requests. Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeffrey S. Dunn requested $563 million in FY2021 – a $42 million increase from the 2020 budget.
Dunn said that the Alabama Department of Corrections “Is undergoing an unprecedented period of change. Now is the time.”
“Transforming the department into what we hope will be the most effective law enforcement agency in the state,” is Dunn’s stated goal. The system has over 21,000 inmates in 26 correctional facilities. After dropping from 23,000 “Our numbers are beginning to go back up.” There are 1100 more prisoners than a year ago and the prisons are at 169 percent capacity, up from 155 percent.
Dunn said that there are “Four Pillars of change” underway for ADOC: to be fully staffed, to be more rehabilitative in nature, new infrastructure, and a new culture.
In order to be fully staffed by 2022, and comply with the federal court order requiring that ADOC be properly staffed, ADOC is in the process of hiring 2,200 new prison guards.
The legislature approved adding 500 new corrections officers in the 2020 budget and Dunn said,” We believe that we will meet or exceed that number. We have hired more than that but there have been some retirements and attrition.”
To accomplish this ADOC has improved pay and working conditions for officers. Dunn said that he is working collaboratively with the third party consulting firm which has prepared a plan for the Department to improve its staffing.
Dunn said that part of that effort is the creation of the basic correction officer position, “as recommended by third party experts.” ADOC has received ten thousand emails and phone calls from prospective recruits. 1491 prospects attended ADOC’s job fairs.
ADOC has a new compensation package with a new salary with pay raises, merit pay, and retention bonuses. In addition to the net gain of 255 officers, currently there are 420 names in the pipeline that are undergoing the necessary background checks in order to be trained as corrections officers.
“This request is for 700 more,” in the 2021 budget Commissioner Dunn said. “We will be back in 2022 for 655 more.”
“There has been some confusion in the press about the new basic correction officer position,” Dunn said. “We only have one academy and one curriculum. It is the same curriculum for the full corrections officers as the basic. The only difference is that the basic corrections officers are not trained to carry firearms and they are not trained in transportation of prisoners because transportation has a firearms component.”
Dunn said that ADOC is focusing more attention on rehabilitation of its inmates. The department continues to expand its vocational efforts. New classrooms have been constructed and the system now offers twenty vocations. Reed “Ingram is the only community college in the country serving solely inmates. Ingram State has a near 100 percent success rate at getting graduates a job.”
Dunn said that they have added a trucking curriculum. Inmates can take an eight week training program while still incarcerated to learn to be truckers. Carpentry and HVAC (heating and air conditioning) have been added to the curriculum.
Dunn said that our third focus area has been infrastructure. We are working to improve the working conditions for our staff and living conditions for the prisoners including new prison construction.
Dunn said that the existing 26 prisons need $750 million in repairs and improvements and that the aging infrastructure is becoming “cost prohibitive” to repair.
Dunn said that they have three “qualified developer teams” to build three new prisons. That is part of our commitment to improving conditions in the prisons. Building the three new prisons “Will save money and make the prisons safer.”
State Representative Pebblin Warren (D-Tuskegee) asked about the Julia S. Tutwiler prison for women in Wetumpka.
“When I jointed the Department five years ago, Tutwiler was making headlines for all of the wrong reasons,” Dunn said. “Now Julia Tutwiler prison is a model for the nation and is making headlines for all the right reasons.”
Dunn said that there is a new documentary about Tutwiler that will soon be released. “I have seen it is very sobering; but it is very good.”
“For the first time in five years the staffing number is at 69 percent,” at Tutwiler. Dunn said. “For years it was forty to fifty five percent which contributed to the problems.”
“Tutwiler is now the oldest prison facility in Alabama,” Dunn said.
Warren asked if one of the three new prisons would be a women’s prison.
Dunn said that no, all of the three prisons in the current bid are for men’s prisons. Dunn said that the Department was going to request an RSP on what a Tutwiler replacement would cost.
If built that would be a fourth new prison.
Dunn said that there has been an increase in the number of women prisoners, so his budget increase includes funding for one hundred female inmates to be housed in county jails next year in addition to the ones in ADOC facilities.
Dunn told legislators that he did not know where the three new prisons were going to be though he had asked that they be close to ADOC’s current work force, close to healthcare facilities, and close to transportation infrastructure. “We do not care whether it is private or public land.” Dunn expected a bid award by April 30.
The fourth pillar of our transformation is changing the culture. Improving the culture requires communication and a “holistic” effort. Combating illegal contraband is part of that. ADOC has begun largescale contraband seizure programs.
Dunn said that officers have seized over 350 phones, $850,000 in drugs, and hundreds of makeshift weapons. The system is using canine officers to search for drugs and the dogs can detect a wide spectrum of drugs including synthetics.
“We remain fully committed to eliminating contraband,” Dunn said. “Our violence numbers are unacceptably high. We have increased staff training and established a task force to reduce the violence.”
Dunn said that the system has received a grant for a pilot program for the use of body cameras in our facilities.
Dunn said that ADOC is implementing health and wellness interventions for staff and that will require resources.
Dunn said that ADOC is dealing with the ongoing Department of Justice investigation and the fourteen court orders that we are currently under.
“The last six months have been very productive on this end and we are optimistic that we can have an agreement with the Justice Department,” Dunn said. There have been productive discussions between the attorneys with DOJ and ADOC.
There is a relationship between violence and understaffing,” Dunn said. “The best thing we can do is to continue to address our staffing issues.”
State Representative Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, asked how the contraband was getting in the prisons.
“It is getting in a variety of ways,” Dunn said. “Some of it is thrown over the fence; We have challenges in the visitation area; and there is an aspect where we have staff that are engaged in criminal activity by bringing in contraband.”
Dunn said that over 70 correctional officers have either been arrested or dismissed for brining in contraband in the previous three years. I do not have the numbers for 2019. There are still pending investigations.
“We do routine searches in our parking lot and our staff as they come in and out of the facility,” Dunn said. “We have increased that.”
Dunn predicted that as we have better compensation for our staff there will be less need for guards to supplement their income by smuggling in contraband to prisoners.
Reynolds asked how inmates were able to charge their contraband cell phones in prison.
“Inmates take advantage of the open wiring,” Dunn said. The prisons were not designed with cell phones in mind. The construction of new prisons will address that.
Reynolds asked how people from outside could smuggle in contraband to prisons in rural areas by throwing it over the fence.
Dunn said that this has been a challenge particularly at night. Inmates with cell phones can coordinate with their accomplices outside of the prison so that they can throw it over when guards are not looking in that direction. “They work very hard at this. It is a constant challenge.”
State Senator Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told Dunn, “No one wants your job.”
Former state senator arrested on charges of violating campaign finance laws
David Burkette has been officially arrested. The former state senator from Montgomery, who resigned on Tuesday as part of a plea deal with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, was formally charged on Thursday with a single misdemeanor count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act.
According to a press release from the AG’s office, Burkette’s charge stems from him depositing campaign donations into his personal account instead of into his campaign accounts, as required by the FCPA. The alleged crimes occurred in 2015 and 2016 when Burkette was serving on the Montgomery City Council.
“The complaint alleged that, in 2015 and 2016 while running for the Montgomery City Council, Burkette intentionally failed to deposit $3,625.00 in campaign contributions into his campaign checking account, and instead, deposited or cashed those contributions into or against his personal bank account,” the AG’s release stated.
The single misdemeanor charge is surprising given the lengthy list of allegations against Burkette submitted to the Alabama Ethics Commission. APR obtained a copy of the original report, which was submitted in October 2018.
In addition to more than $40,000 in allegedly improperly spent council discretionary funds that were flagged by auditors for the city of Montgomery, Burkette was also accused of inappropriately donating tens of thousands more to suspect charities and two sororities, including his wife’s.
The Ethics Commission referred Burkette’s case to the AG’s Office in October 2019.
Pro-Growth Conference kicks off with Doug Jones, discussions on COVID impact and a living wage
What happens if you just give impoverished citizens $500 per month — no strings attached? Good things, it turns out. The people use that income to buy food, medicine and basic necessities for life. They take a day off work if they’re sick and actually get treatment. They quit a second, hourly-wage job that they are overqualified for and instead work towards obtaining a better, higher-paying primary job.
These are things that the city of Stockton, California, has learned in its year-long living wage program.
The program, while limited in size — only 125 people — has proven to be a larger success than city officials had hoped, and it has opened their eyes to a new, more proactive style of governance, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs told Alabama elected officials.
Tubbs was the featured speaker on Tuesday at the first day of the Pro-Growth Policy Conference, a three-day forum for Alabama elected leaders with guest speakers from around the country offering tips and best practices.
The first day of the conference began with an opening talk from Sen. Doug Jones, who pressed the need for Medicaid expansion and how expansion has aided other red states. Jones also highlighted the need for broadband expansion and talked about a bill he has in the Senate that would create a broadband main office and dish out about $20 million in money for affordable access.
“Now (with COVID), we know how needed it really is,” Jones said. “We see the homework gap that we have. We know there’s a need for more telemedicine. My bill would consolidate in one office all of the monies for broadband … and provide affordable access.”
Jones said the current COVID pandemic has highlighted just how badly we need better access to broadband in Alabama, and a major area of concern right now is healthcare.
Highlighting that point, Brandon Garrett, the chief operating officer of the National Minority Quality Forum, and Dr. LaTasha Lee, the vice-president of social and clinical research, demonstrated the many ways in which inequality in health care and health care options is harming impoverished communities.
A number of factors play into that inequality, but a lack of access to updated means of communication and tools is one of the biggest.
“(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) said that, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane because it results in physical death,’” Lee said. “That’s what we’re seeing currently with COVID-19 and sickle cell disease. These two diseases are affecting the minority community and causing death, and they make a great argument that such health care disparities really are a social justice issue.”
Correcting such issues was one of the goals of Stockton’s living wage experiment. Now, Tubbs said, a working person can afford to stay home or get tested if they’re feeling symptomatic, whereas before that person — scared of missing a paycheck or losing the job altogether — might come to work with the virus and infect an entire workplace.
That alone, Tubbs said, has restored dignity to a number of residents.
“This is not easy, especially with budgets the way they are,” Tubbs said. “But I don’t know how we continue to live with the status quo as it is.
“I think part of being a leader, as we are, is having the courage to do something about what we’re seeing. We have to be able to do that.”
The Pro-Growth Policy Conference will run both Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Wednesday’s round of conferences will focus on state grants, economic development around the state and what the 2021 legislative session might look like.
On Thursday, the event will wrap up with talks by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson and Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell.
Russell Bedsole wins Republican runoff in HD49
As of press time, it appears that Russell Bedsole has won a narrow victory over Mimi Penhale in the special Republican primary runoff election in Alabama House District 49.
At press time, Bedsole had a 166-vote lead in unofficial results on the secretary of state’s website.
“We won,” Bedsole declared on social media.
Bedsole is an Alabaster city councilman and a Shelby County Sheriff’s Department captain.
“Sadly, tonight did not turn out in my favor. Despite the loss, I feel like God truly used this opportunity to help me grow in my walk with Him, and gave me the opportunity to increase my testimony,” Penhale said. “I feel so incredibly blessed by the people I have met on this campaign and the experiences I have had. I am disappointed in the outcome, but what an honor it is to have the confidence of 1,183 people across House District 49! Thank you!!”
Russell Bedsole had 1,249 votes, or 51.36 percent, to Mimi Penhale’s 1,183, or 48.64 percent, to win the House District 49 Republican primary runoff.
There were just 2,432 votes cast in the special primary runoff election. Shelby County was the decisive factor in the election. Bedsole won Shelby County with 762 votes, or 71.42 percent, to Penale’s 305 votes.
Penhale carried Chilton and Bibb Counties, but could not overcome Bedsole’s strong performance in Shelby County.
The provisional ballots will be counted on Sept. 8, 2020, and certification of votes will occur on Sept. 16, 2020.
Bedsole will face Democratic nominee Sheryl Patton in the special general election on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.
The vacancy in House District 49 was created when State Rep. April Weaver announced her resignation to accept a presidential appointment as a regional director in the Department of Health and Human Services.
In a statement, the Alabama Republican Party thanked “each of the candidates that qualified for offering themselves up for service in the Alabama State House of Representatives.”
Under ethics investigation, State Sen. David Burkette resigns
David Burkette has resigned his Alabama Senate seat as part of a deal with prosecutors in an ethics investigation.
The Montgomery Democrat submitted a resignation letter to Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday afternoon, but he refused to reveal specifics to state media outlets. A source familiar with the investigation told APR that Burkette’s resignation is part of a deal that would reduce or eliminate any jail time.
“Governor Ivey is disappointed, but firmly supports the rule of law, and particularly in this situation where there has been a clear misuse of public trust,” said Gina Maiola, a spokesperson for Ivey’s office.
Attempts by APR to reach Burkette late Tuesday were unsuccessful, but he told Alabama Daily News that he couldn’t speak about his conversations with prosecutors because of a confidentiality agreement.
Burkette has been the focus of an ethics investigation for more than a year. A complaint filed against Burkette nearly two years ago alleged that while serving on the Montgomery City Council, Burkette directed tens of thousands of dollars in council discretionary funds to suspect charities and also directed funds to his wife’s sorority.
The Alabama Ethics Commission ruled 4-0 last October to refer allegations against Burkette for prosecution. At the time, Montgomery District Attorney Daryl Bailey said the Alabama Attorney General’s Office would handle the investigation.
It is unclear if Burkette’s current plea deal is limited to only those allegations.
Burkette’s resignation is a disappointing conclusion to a Senate tenure he fought hard to get. Vying for a seat vacated by former State Sen. Quinton Ross, who left to become president at Alabama State University, Burkette won 11 races over the course of six months, beating out longtime State Rep. John Knight in most of them.