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Governor’s panel tours aging, understaffed prison

By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press

ATMORE, Ala. (AP) — Inmates in the Alpha Dorm at Holman Correctional Facility sit in bunks separated by about three feet of space as a correctional officer keeps watch from an elevated control room.

The 50-year-old maximum security prison in south Alabama houses about 1,000 inmates in facilities originally designed for about 500. It also has about one-third of the corrections officer it is should have. An inmate in one area of the prison hung a “HELP” sign in a window as visitors approached.

Alabama officials toured the prison, which the corrections commissioner said highlights the state’s problem with aging facilities. It also shows the state’s ongoing problems with understaffing, according to the commissioner.

The Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice toured Holman as part of its work of preparing recommendations ahead of the 2020 legislative session. The panel was convened as the state faces continued criticism of prison conditions, a federal court order to boost prison staffing and improve mental health care — and threats of a lawsuit by the Department of Justice.

Holman Warden Cynthia Stewart said the prison has 50 correctional officers on staff when it is authorized for 165. Seeking to boost prison staffing, the state created a new position of basic correctional officer which can perform most of the tasks of correctional officers. There are nine basic correctional officers working at Holman, Stewart said.

Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said staffing at Holman has fluctuated, but the state is taking several steps to try to boost staffing at Holman and other prisons. Among them, the state has raised correctional officer pay in an effort to boost staff.

The prison tour comes as Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration is exploring a plan to build three new mega-prisons and close most facilities. Dunn pointed out the physical problems at Holman.

Holman was built in 1969. Dunn said the 50-year-old prison lacks classrooms and other spaces for rehabilitation programs. He said improving the prison system is “not just building more beds.”

“This was a facility that was built for warehousing,” Dunn said. “It was not built to rehabilitate and give people the best shot to be a law-abiding citizen. That is our goal.”

Alabama prisons have come under fire for overcrowding and understaffing that results in dangerous conditions for both staff and inmates.

The U.S. Department of Justice in April issued scathing findings that condemned Alabama prisons for what it called unconstitutional conditions, including high rates of violence.

Eight inmates have been killed by other inmates in 2019 inside Alabama prisons, according to prison system statistics and news releases. In 2016, Corrections Officer Kenneth L. Bettis, 44, died after being stabbed by an inmate at Holman Prison.

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