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Corrections in ‘tough situation’ over staffing, crowding, aging prison population

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – John Hamm, commissioner for the Alabama Department of Corrections, painted a bleak picture Wednesday of the current state of his department during a meeting of the Legislative Prison Oversight Committee.

Hiring enough correctional officers continues to be a struggle, Hamm said. It is exacerbated by an increasing prison population that was 20,710 as of July. Those prisoners are growing older, too, with the number of medical furloughs requested by inmates up 25% in 2023 over the previous year.

“Our (prison) population, it’s inching up a little bit,” Hamm said. “We’re going to be on that upward trajectory probably for some time.”

While Hamm had some good news to share on staffing, with Corrections having gained a net addition of nearly 40 correctional officers over the summer, the department was still short more than a thousand correctional officers, with at least 727 of those vacancies already budgeted for.

“So we’ve got 20,000 people in prison, and we’ve got facilities that are built to house 13,000?” asked Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville. “So we’re roughly 7,000 over design capacity, and (at) roughly 60% of the security officers that you would like to have? To me that’s pretty obvious why that’s a tough situation.”

Rep. Jim Hill.

Hamm agreed and said that it was the toughest situation he had dealt with in his more than 35 years in law enforcement.

As of Sept. 18, ADOC has granted seven medical furloughs during the 2023 fiscal year to inmates with health issues ranging from cancer to dementia, Hamm said. That’s out of 30 total requests from inmates for early release due to medical conditions, which Hamm said fell into three categories; geriatric, incapacitated and terminal.

“We have several that are terminally ill with cancer, (and) there was one I denied right before (our) last meeting that was terminal cancer, but the individual was still ambulatory; they could get up and move around,” Hamm said. 

“He committed some pretty heinous  crimes. Since then, he has declined a lot, so he’s probably going to be approved for a medical furlough in the next week or so.”

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, warned Hamm that the state’s aging prison population was going to become exponentially costlier as time goes on, and that ADOC’s newly-approved $1 billion contract with YesCare – a correctional health care company – was ill-equipped to deal with the matter.

“We signed a $1 billion contract with a company that is possibly incapable of dealing with what it’s going to be charged with,” England said. “They’ve already demonstrated they’re not very good at it anyway. So, as a body, we’re going to have to come up with a better solution, because as that population grows, it ages.”

The Joint Prison Oversight Committee holds its Sept. 20 meeting.

The $1 billion, four-year contract with YesCare – which Rep. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, said during the meeting was now a $1.4 billion contract – was first discussed by the legislative Contract Review Committee back in February.

That conflict of interest was related to Bill Lunsford, an attorney who has been regularly hired by ADOC to represent the department in litigation. Lunsford, who’s received over $20 million in state contracts, $11 million of which since 2022, had previously sat on the YesCare Board of Advisors.

While the contract was eventually approved, with YesCare having already been paid more than $107 million, England took further issue with the company and questioned its ability to carry out the contract. He was referring to the maneuvers by the executives behind YesCare and previously with Corizon – another corrections health care company – in which it amassed considerable debt, moved the majority of that debt to a new company, which shortly thereafter declared bankruptcy. Many of those same executives would then go on to create YesCare, of which more than $170 million’s worth of Corizon’s assets were moved to.

” …I’m imploring us to find alternative solutions to deal with that aging population that we identify is no longer a threat to anyone,” England said.

Rep. Chris England.

Hamm later told ADN that he disagreed with England’s assessment of YesCare, and said “they’re doing an excellent job.”

“Their staffing, we’ve probably had more medical and mental health staff than we’ve had in years, so they’re doing good,” he said.

Ultimately, England argued that a change in Alabama’s prison system – which is currently under threat of federal takeover due to a federal lawsuit over inhumane conditions – was necessary to prevent a continued decline. 

That change, England suggested, should start at the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

“It appears to me that whoever’s operating paroles and making the decisions thinks that you’re absolutely horrible at classifying people and rehabilitating people,” England said, likely referring to Parole Board Chair Leigh Gwathney, of whom he’s been a strong critic of regarding the board’s shrinking parole grant rates.

“In order for you to make your mission possible, you have got to start talking about the parole system, (and how they) have to assist (you) in helping relieve some of the population that no longer needs to be here. We can’t afford to pay for the staffing and build enough facilities as the prison population is going to do nothing but increase.”

After the meeting, Hill told members of the press that he thought the Parole Board “could function better in my opinion,” but did not commit to an ideal parole grant rate, which this year is on track to be as low as 8%.

“If folks are not a threat to public safety, I think we need to be working on removing them from the system,” he said.

Speaking with reporters, Hamm declined to comment on what an ideal parole grant rate should be, or whether the board was functioning properly. Alabama Daily News asked Hamm if, as England asked of him, he would advocate for the parole board to make changes on ADOC’s behalf.

“It depends,” he said.


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