By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama prison system, already understaffed and facing a federal court order to boost employment numbers, saw the number of correctional staff decline 4% during the pandemic.
The Alabama Department of Corrections had 1,914 officers and supervisors in the quarter that ended June 30, 2020 — a 50% vacancy rate. But that fell to 1,837 at the end of June 30, 2021, boosting the vacancy rate to 52%. The numbers were listed in most recent staffing reports the system is required to file with the federal court.
While staff shortages have long been a problem for corrections agencies, the pandemic brought new challenges for systems across the country. In Alabama, that comes as the state faces the dual pressure of a Department of Justice civil lawsuit and a separate court order out of a mental health care lawsuit to boost staffing.
Kyle Mays, 36, this year left his job of 11 years at Limestone Correctional Facility because he said the stress of working inside the prison was beginning to take a toll. He took a pay cut to take a job in manufacturing.
“It has gotten worse by far worse,” Mays said of conditions inside prisons.
At the maximum-security prison where he worked, he said there would be five roving officers trying to supervise a general population of about 1,600 inmates. He said most incidents occur during mealtimes when officers are pulled to the dining area, “because there is no security in the dormitories.”
“It’s very dangerous, but it’s a lot more dangerous for the inmates.” Mays said.
Kristi Simpson spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Corrections said the department saw a small decline in staffing, but said the problem is not unique to the prison system. She said the department could not comment on the staffing situation described at Limestone because of the ongoing litigation.
“Public and private organizations across the nation are facing unprecedented workforce shortages and recruitment challenges due to the dynamics of the labor market…. More broadly speaking, correctional and law enforcement organizations across the nation are struggling to fill vacant positions due to the challenging/stressful nature of the work and evolving cultural influences,” the department said in a statement.
The prison system has used a statewide recruitment campaign, the creation of new security positions, pay raises and other efforts to boost staffing.
“We believe we have made as much progress as was possible with the resources available to us juxtaposed against a global pandemic and unprecedented labor market challenges.”
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in 2017 ruled that mental health care in prisons was “horrendously inadequate” and said low staffing was a root cause. He ordered the prison system to add as many as 2,000 officers.