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.”