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Attorneys: Alabama making little progress in prison staffing

By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama has made little progress in meeting a court order to dramatically increase the number of corrections officers working in state prisons, attorneys for state inmates told a federal judge Friday.

Attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote in a court filing in an ongoing case over prison health care that the state has increased staff by only 25 officers over nearly two years, “less than 1.5% of the number of officers defendants are required to add by February 2022.”

“Defendants have made little progress toward compliance with the court’s understaffing order,” attorneys wrote. “Rather than demanding ‘praise’ from the Court, Defendants should identify any other means by which the State of Alabama can address the deadly level of correctional understaffing that plagues Alabama prisons.”

Attorneys said that the state had 1,517 correctional officers and supervisors in 2017 and had only 1,542 as of Sept. 30, 2019.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in 2017 ruled that mental health care in state prisons was “horrendously inadequate” and said that understaffing is an overarching issue behind the unconstitutional conditions. Thompson ordered the state to add about 2,000 officers.

A lawyer for the Alabama Department of Corrections disputed the assertion in a statement issued Friday evening, accusing the SPLC of taking “extreme liberties with our historical staffing information” and ignoring “meaningful progress” in addressing staffing.

Bill Lunsford, a lawyer representing the Alabama Department of Corrections, said “from October 1, 2018, to September 30, 2019, ADOC had a net gain of 193 correctional security staff, and just recently graduated an additional 125 officers in December 2019.”

“The reality is that we are instituting sweeping changes to address both recruitment and retention concerns that will take both time and resources to fully implement, including building three new correctional facilities that will provide safer and more desirable working conditions,” Lunsford said.

The department filed a quarterly staffing report last month, saying it had 1,659 correctional staff members as of Sept. 30, but those numbers include correctional cubicle operator positions. The SPLC argued that those positions should not count as officer gains since those staffers do not interact with inmates.

The Department of Justice last year said chronic staffing shortages were a factor behind high rates of violence in Alabama prisons.

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