By CAROLINE BECK Alabama Daily News
For today’s In the Weeds episode, I am talking with the newly appointed Director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Cam Ward. I spoke with Ward on his vision for the agency amidst the concerns over Alabama’s crowded prison system and the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the state over the conditions of its men’s prisons.
I talked with Ward about how his experience as a state legislator for nearly 20 years has given him valuable insight into how to improve the bureau and hopefully regain the trust of the state Legislature. I wanted to speak with Ward now that he is a little over a month into the job and as he prepares to submit the agency’s 2022 budget request to lawmakers later this month.
Before taking the oath from Gov. Kay Ivey in early December, Ward was a state senator, representing District 14 since 2010. As the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he has been the lawmaker behind many pieces of criminal justice legislation over the years, including a number of bills set for the 2020 regular session but sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. State lawmakers have already signaled that prison legislation will be a main priority in the upcoming 2021 session.
In our conversation, Ward is careful not to focus on a specific number of parole hearings he would like to see in the coming months, but does say he wants to see an increase. One data point he will be looking for is the recidivism rate in three to four years, which he says the bureau has a responsibility to decrease.
Over the last year, since former director Charlie Graddick took control of the bureau in 2019, the number of parole hearings dropped drastically as did the number of paroles granted. This drew criticisms from criminal justice advocates, especially as COVID-19 was spreading through Alabama’s prisons, infecting those who could have possibly been released on parole.
Ward and I spoke about how the agency has been facing a crisis of confidence at the leadership level since the bureau has had five different directors in about nine years. Ward said one of his main goals is to bring a sense of stability to the bureau and boost overall morale for the agency’s more than 700 employees.
Another big goal for Ward is to update the agency’s technology systems to adapt to the needs created by the COVID-19 pandemic and move away from the antiquated paper-based system the agency uses. Ward said the lack of technology is another reason why parole hearings have slowed.
One interesting project related to technology that Ward spoke to me about that didn’t make it into the recording was his plans for having a video feed for inmates to be able to call into their own parole hearings. Inmates have historically never been able to attended meetings in person and now during the pandemic, no one from the public has been allowed to attend meetings.
Ward also told me of his possible intentions to move the bureau’s central office, currently located in east Montgomery and where the three-member-board meets for their weekly parole and pardon hearings, to a different location. Ward thinks some of the new office space is unnecessary and not really conducive to holding safe parole hearings.
During our tour of the new offices, I briefly met the three board members as they were working through the day’s parole cases. They said the current hearing room was probably a third of the size of their original hearing room and think it would be better for both the crime victims and inmate’s families if the room was larger and provided two separate entrances to avoid any conflicts or possible tensions that may arise between the two groups.
Overall, Ward described a hopeful vision for the bureau, one in which he finds an appropriate balance to the number of paroles being granted and the bureau works more closely with the Department of Corrections than they have in the past. Moving forward, Ward said he wants to be as transparent with the public as he can be under the law about the steps he hopes to take to improve the bureau.
Here’s In the Weeds with Cam Ward.
ADN: Thank you Director Ward. It’s kind of odd for me to say director instead of senator, are you getting used to that?
Ward: Its been a change but I’ve enjoyed it. I think there is still some confusion about what we call you out here, but I’ve been called a lot of bad things in my life too so I’ll take a good call anytime.
ADN: Thank you for having me in today, I appreciate talking with you during this change and with what the bureau is going through right now, its good to get an understanding of the situation. First I want ask, why did you want to take on this role? Why did you want to switch from being in the Legislature to being in this agency?
CW: I’ve served just about 19 and a half years in the Legislature and really enjoyed it, it was an honor of a lifetime, but I also have always said that that shouldn’t be a permanent part of my life, and I honestly was getting to a point where I loved it and enjoyed it, but I loved it and enjoyed it in doing what I did and was afraid that all of a sudden I would wake up one day and be there forever. It’s not a forever job. And not to mention the fact that my passion has always been in criminal justice reform. I’ve just enjoyed that issue and when this opportunity came up, Gov. Ivey offered me this position, I just couldn’t pass it up, because now I get to focus all my time, all my efforts, full time to criminal justice and it was just a great opportunity for me, and something I enjoy doing in life.
ADN: You are one of the people in Alabama that has the most knowledge of the prison situation and you’ve certainly been the face or the drive behind certain legislative pieces that have made changes. What is your vision for the bureau right now? For how you want to tackle, maybe not the prison issue, but how you want to tackle paroling, what is your vision of what the bureau should be doing?
CW: Well, we’re a piece of the puzzle, the bureau is a piece of the puzzle. We’re not the solution to the prison problem but we’re definitely a part of the solution. I think between the courts, between diversion programs, between DOC, us, I think all of us play a role in how we handle the prison problem that we have in Alabama. My vision and the way I look at this is: the bureau has always had a problem, I call it a pendulum issue. We went from too many people who shouldn’t have been let out were let out of prison, then we went to absolutely no one is getting out. There has to be a happy middle. As a told the governor when I met with her, I call it the Goldilocks approach. Not too hot, not too cold, but somewhere right in the middle. A more pragmatic approach. Don’t retry every case. Look at someone and the No. 1 question is, are they a threat to society, are they a threat to public safety? That’s how you look at parole. And of course there were some tension between the board and the previous director, I don’t work for the board, the board doesn’t work for me, but we’re suppose to work together. So I guess my vision is this: One, I want to see us revaluate how we are looking at cases, that doesn’t mean you’re letting more out or less out, it just means we revaluate the standards that we’re using. Two, I think the bureau of pardons and parole should be a partner with the department of corrections, should be a partner with the board. Should be a partner with the courts and law enforcement. We should be a partner with all of them and not be out here acting as a silo on issues by ourselves. So my vision is I want to make it run more smoothly. Two, integrate ourselves so that we’re a partner in making sure, one, public safety but two, adequate and proper re-entry and rehabilitation programs.
ADN: Can you talk a little bit about the rehabilitation programs. There’s been some back and forth about what should happen to programs like Life Tech, can you talk about what your plans are for those situation?
CW: I went down and visited LifeTech a few weeks ago, and my goal is to not only reopen LifeTech but to expand upon Life Tech. Life Tech, for those who don’t know, is a reentry program, rehabilitation and it provides not only educational opportunities, but provides health, provides drug and substance abuse rehabilitation. We need to do more of that in Alabama. And the way you do it is, it shouldn’t be a pardons and parole, its shouldn’t be a DOC, it shouldn’t be this, we should all be work together. So one of the things we did is we convened down there with local authorities, such as the mayor, such as some local official there and then we had Ingram State technical college which is a prison education program, we had DOC, my agency down there, and what could all of us do together to, not only Life Tech, but how do we expand upon that. What if we eventually took over the Perry county facility, which has been a big political debate in the Legislature, what if we took that over also as a re-entry type program. I think the more those programs provide, data, everywhere in the country shows this, it’s unanimous, it reduces recidivism, the likelihood of someone committing a crime again once they go through that program, it drops dramatically. So yes that’s a big focus of mine. We’re both a law enforcement agency but we’re also a how do we help someone get back on their feet agency, but yes I think LifeTech and we also have what we call out Day Reporting centers. Where someone checks in to make sure they’re taking their medication and making sure that if they need treatment that they’re getting the treatment they need for addiction. We need to expand on those programs and use them more than we have in the past.
ADN: Can you talk about the day reporting centers. I know a lot of things have had to change because of COVID-19 can you talk about how the systems have been changing there, how are officers taking tactics differently to go out to see people?
CW: It’s been a challenge because you’re limited in the contact with others. The officers still do what they’re supposed to do despite the fact that they’re at risk to being exposed, but they’re doing what they’re suppose to be doing with that, and it’s changed but just like everything else, we’ve adapted with technology. We use a lot more Zoom, we use a lot more interactive features that we can talk with people and monitor things and I think you’ll see that increase as we move forward. COVID changed really everything in how we do things in government. I can see going forward using a lot more electronic monitoring. Now there is a stigma that says, well that means ankle bracelets, well not necessarily, ankle bracelets are part of the issue, but now technology can come in the form of your Fitbits or your Apple Watches, it’s the same size but now technology that I can check in if you’re a client or someone on parole or probation, you can check in with your officer without have to leave your home, without having to leave your job, and they’ll know where you’re at, what you’re doing and making sure you’re doing what you’re suppose to be doing. I can see that being the future of monitoring because its so accurate as to, well you’re here and you shouldn’t be here, or you’re at work.
ADN: Do you have any idea of when parole and probation officers might be getting the vaccine?
CW: That process is going on now. They’re starting that now because they’re considered frontline. So, that is starting now.
ADN: I know a priority for the last director and for you is hiring more parole and probation officers. Can you talk about that effort, what are the challenges?
CW: So, there are two issues I’ve noticed. One, we do want to hire more parole officers, but two, giving them the support they need to do their job. The idea behind the 2015 legislation we did, SB 67, which was about reforming criminal justice reform, the bulk of that legislation dealt with the Bureau of Pardons and Parole. The idea is the more parole and probation officers out there monitoring people, checking in on them, making sure they’re doing what they’re suppose to be doing, the safer we are and the less likelihood they’re going to commit crimes again. In order to do that they’ve got to get out behind the desk. Right now we have enormous amounts of paperwork that they’re constantly having to do. Which confines them to a desk as opposed to being out there and interacting with people that they’re supervising. So, one of the ideas is to have a professional services type of officer. That person does nothing but processing the paper work. It’s not a law enforcement person but they do process paperwork. More of those folks dealing with the bureaucratic needs and then allowing the actually officers to be out there and watching and monitoring, that’s the path forward. And the previous administration before me started down that path and I think they were right in doing that.
ADN: I believe at one-point, former Director Graddick said at one point he wants 138 new officers by the next year, I forget the time frame exactly, but is that your goal as well?
CW: So my first swearing in was four officers, and the last one was 31. So yes I think that goal is correct. I think Graddick was correct on that and I think we should continue to push forward on that. There is a dispute as to what the standards should be. Some say 75 clients to one officer. My issue is, as long as the officer isn’t being clawed up in paperwork, that number can fluctuate some. They just need to be freed up to do their job.
ADN: You’ve also spoken to me before about needing extra support staff for the three board members.
CW: They do and they’re an easy scape goat on why paroles have stopped and its not fair to them. At the end of the day if you really want them to be able to work, they need to have support staff, now that was a disagreement I had with the previous administration. So the bureau, if you look at our organizational chart is separate from the board, but they usually have their own staff to provide them with the things they need. The bureau should be providing whatever resources they need from us and we give it to them and that hasn’t always happened and that’s slowed down a lot on the pardons and parole considerations. Ever since I came here, I think we’ve been very open and very honest on getting…I meet a lot with the board, so asking what do you need from us, so not only are we giving our resources but in my budget requests is to have them some more staff to help them deal with these issues. The board is only as effective as the people that are there to support them staff wise, and they have some good people but they need more.
ADN: Speaking of the board and the slow down of the parole hearings, is it your intention or would you like to see more parole hearings happening at an accelerated pace?
CW: We’ve increased that dramatically already. A good example just last week. For the entire month of March 2020, when COVID started, we were down to roughly about 200-230 hearings for the month of March. We didn’t have any in April. In May, we had about 130-140. Just last week we had 142. And then when it comes to pardons, pardons has almost come to and end and so when you’re looking at that the grant rate is still around 20-25%. Just because you have it, doesn’t necessarily mean its going to be granted, but yes I would like to at least see the hearings increase. There’s one flaw. Everyone looks at these spread sheets and says, well the grant rate in 2015 was here and now its here. The problem being that since the legislature enacted certain reforms, a larger part of your non-violent population in prisons is gone. The prison population, violent wise, as far as statutory criminal sentences has gone up, so there’s less population that’s eligible for parole. A lot of people were blaming the board, that they’re not releasing enough, but you can’t look at a spread sheet, you need to look at individual cases to see if they’re eligible.
ADN: I know a criticism about that, about more violent offenders being in prisons in Alabama is that the violent categorization in Alabama is very wide reaching, you’ve got drug charges and robbery charges in there, so you agree about the categorization issue?
CW: How you categorize them is a big issue. The problem you have is, a lot of what you need is legislation changes, and that’s no longer my purview but I will tell you there are several people who have had cases of robbery II, drug possession and assault I, why aren’t you letting him out? Because before the 2015 act, he is considered a habitual offender, and under law you can’t. So they’ve got to change the law on how you categorize people.
ADN: There was conversation, I believe a year ago, I believe it was given by the bureau, they were talking about maybe revaluating the Ohio Risk Assessment System, that the board uses, is that something the board is considering still?
CW: In 2015, when I had my legislation for criminal justice reform, I wanted to make ORAS standards mandatory. You had to use them. Then we couldn’t get it passed and it got removed from the bill in 2015. I think we should use it. Its been used all around the country. They basically go in and look at if you (inmate) has gotten an education, do you have a job skill, what have you done right or wrong since you’ve been on the inside and that’s the evaluation for parole. There are certain people, statutorily, the most violent offenders, murders, rapists, child molesters, human traffickers, they aren’t eligible for a certain period of time under the law but there is a population in between that you can use ORAS to see if they should or should not.
ADN: And you think the way the board uses that and all the other risk factors is appropriate?
CW: I think we can improve upon it and its not a criticism on the board, it’s a criticism of the law. I think making us use that, mandatory, would help us a lot. But again the board and myself included as the bureau director, whatever the Legislature says is what we’re going to do. It’s the law. And there’s a lot of criticism of the board that they should or should not follow this, whatever the law says is what they’re going to do.
ADN: Going back to the parole hearings, do you have a goal yourself that you would like to see a certain amount of parole hearings you would like to see every week?
CW: I don’t want to do quantity because I think quantity is misleading. And I think two administrations back did that. They said we’ve got to have X number of hearings every single time and that’s a subjective view and I think its false because the entire population may change. I don’t think you can use a quantity. I think you look at the individual cases. Don’t retry the cases. We already had a judge try them, convict them, they’re in prison. Now you look from the time they enter, till now and evaluate case by case, but I would not go back and say we need to have X number considered regardless of what they did. I just think that’s a bad approach. It’s not honest. It’s basically telling people here is my spread sheet but I think running criminal-justice type agencies by spread sheet is a bad policy.
ADN: Talking about the Legislature, what are your proposals for the budget requests that you hope to bring to them?
CW: Of course my budget has been submitted to the Governor’s Office and the Finance Department and then they’ll submit it to the Legislature. I am going to focus on three big issues. One, I want to do more re-entry. More re-entry programs, more rehabilitation, more education in partnership with education agencies like Ingram State Technical College or DOC. Two, I think we have got to get away from the paper that we use. We’re running an outdated system and its slowing things down. The number of paper files between DOC and the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is so antiquated. Why aren’t we doing everything online and digitally. So that’s the second thing. And third, we have to support our staff in the field. These officers who are working and we need more officers to help monitor those out on parole and probation. And then finally, a fourth thing, we need more legal staff so that, we’ve picked up the tempo in the number of hearings, but it’s because we are putting more legal staff to help the board develop the files and have the hearing, and they just haven’t had that. So sorry its four things not three.
ADN: Do you have a specific number in mind for the budget?
CW: No, What I’m not going to do is go to the Legislature and make some enormous request, above and beyond, because I think our agency has to re-establish trust with the Legislature. Show this is what we’re doing, we’ve had problems over the last 15 years. I’m the fifth director we’ve had in the last nine years. We’ve got to do something to re-establish the trust and show this agency is confident in how to spend their money.
ADN: Last week at the Legislative Contract Review Committee meeting, the bureau had several contracts about mental health services. Some of the legislators were saying that a lot of the services you want to provide could be provided through the ADOC or the Alabama Department of Mental Health?
CW: The problem you have there is that if you talk to mental health they’ll tell you, mental health does not hire or have on staff mental health doctors, that’s not what they do. They coordinate the services through private by contracts but they don’t do that. And if you talk to mental health, they say we don’t do criminal justice mental health, we don’t do prisons, that’s just not what they do, they don’t have the staff, its just not feasible for them. I think going forward and I’ve actually talked to some legislators since then. At the end of the day, that should be a core part of our mission. If you want to keep someone from committing a crime, if they have a mental illness lets treat it. But you do a lot cheaper if you contract than if you had somebody on staff, because I think one of the contracts is like $500,000, you could probably because of benefits, salary and everything else that goes with it, you could have three people per amount of staff as opposed to contracting for most of the state for the same amount. It just doesn’t work. The Department of Mental Health and DOC, DOC does not have employees that are “mental health”, they don’t provide mental health services, they are not a hospital. All they do is they contract out, and that’s that same thing here.
I think there’s just a lot of confusion… Pardons and Paroles and DOC is not something a legislator goes into and says, “I want to be an expert on this.” It’s not fun, the general public doesn’t care about it, but I think there’s a little confusion because of that but that’s just part of the process.
ADN: Talk about what you are hoping your relationship will be with ADOC. There have been problems in the past where their really wasn’t good communication happening.
CW: We talk a couple times a week. We’ve had a couple meetings, where myself and (Commissioner Jeff Dunn), and we also meet with technical colleges, so that they are providing educational programs to inmates, and I think the commissioner would agree with me, it’s the first time we’ve all gotten together in the same room in years. So he and I talk, Comissioner Dunn, Dr. Funderburk out of Ingram state. We talk weekly. We talk a lot. I think that relationship needs to grow. I think the problem is that state government has blinders on and my agency does this, your agency does this, but I think they all blend over. I think if we all come with a common goal, forget the bureaucratic lines that have been put in place, if you’ve got to do it and I take back up or I’ve got to do it and you take back up, if we work together towards the goal, don’t let arbitrary bureaucratic lines stop you from doing that. Dunn and I talk a lot.
ADN: And has he be perceptive to your ideas for the bureau?
CW: We have a very good relationship. He has a different mission than I have but we also blend in that his is public safety, mine is public safety. He’s going to have people leaving him coming to me into my custody, so how do we do that better. I think we have a fantastic relationship, and that was one of the things I told the governor I saw as a weakness in this agency and the entire criminal justice system is that we have all these agencies that are responsible for bits and pieces but to fix the problems we see with DOJ and the federal courts, all of us need to be on the same page, working together hand in hand, don’t get in turf wars, don’t get jealous of each other, just work together and I think that’s an area where my work in the Legislature will help me. I think that helps all of us and I told the governor I think we can work together in a way and improve the whole system and not just one agency, not me fighting versus the DOC. That happened too much and can’t have that going forward.
ADN: Another problem that Director Graddick was bringing up when he was in this position was the crime victims notifications and how that whole process works wasn’t working to its fullest ability, have you made any changes to that process?
CW: We have a designated crime victims director. All she does all the time. It’s a technology issue. IT wise. We’re starting to make progress, it’s a priority but at the end of the day you’ve got to have money to do it. But the law clearly states though that the crime victim or the crime victim family has to be notified, so that delays a parole hearing. The law is clear that we have to provide that notification. But yes what happens is that someone who is listed as a crime victim or a crime victim family who is suppose to be notified, ten years ago they lived at this address, a person hasn’t had a hearing in 10-15 years and they’ve moved three times since then, how do you find them? And a lot of times sometimes they are registered, sometimes crime victim families say they want that out of their lives, it was so traumatic, I don’t want that to be part of my life anymore, so they just move on, so that’s part of the challenge too.
ADN: Do you think that the process overall has improved though since the Graddick administration?
CW: I’ve only been here a month so I think we’re still in the same situation. I think we’re trying to but I don’t want to fool anyone and say its better. Its technology and a lot of crime victim registries say this is my address but again a lot just say they want that part out of my life so that creates challenges. You’re always going to have the human element but I think we’re trying to get there.
ADN: As a wrapping up point, what are some signs or markers that you are going to be able to see or look for in maybe a years’ time or further down the road that shows you’ve made positive change here?
CW: First of all the moral of the officers. There was a feeling the officers have said, and this isn’t an inditement on any one administration, this is an inditement on the system as a whole, they felt like we had no guidance or leadership, things were just floating out here. That’s one, how do they feel. There will never be an arbitrary number, that if I hit this number or this number that we’ve done what we’ve suppose to do. I think our success is going to be governed on how we have restarted the programs on reentry, rehabilitation but also the moral of the officers who are having to work in that program every day. There’s not an arbitrary number, its just an are we seeing an increase in programming being offered and say in three or four years what does the recidivism rate look like in Alabama. Now I think that’s a big part of our job. How do we reduce recidivism. We have done a good job in Alabama compared to other state, as far as the re-conviction of people. We’re in the high 20 percentile range. But we can always do better but I think this agency is responsible. So I would say my marker is, morale, increase in programing and what does that do in three to four years for our recidivism rates.
ADN: You said too before the you never really envisioned yourself to be a senator your entire life, do you see yourself being in this bureau the rest of your life?
CW: No, I don’t think anyone does one job forever. I will say though we need, if there is one marquee thing I could say, we need stability in this agency. Five directors in nine years, it creates a morale problem for the officers, it creates a morale problem for the agency officials and everyone left. The pendulum keeps swinging back and forth way too much. I think we need calm and I think we need stability. And I think we need a better relationship with the legislative branch of the government and I think we need to do a better job of being fellow partners with our other law enforcement agencies. So, no, I don’t envision myself being here forever but I do hope I can bring some stability and calmness to what we’re doing.
ADN: That sounds great and I think a lot of people would be hopeful for that change too.
CW: I think my experience in the Legislature helped me with my legislative relationships. I think it helped me in understanding how the budget process works. Being over there gave me a lot of experience that helps me being here. Now I will tell you that being here, its almost like drinking from a fire hydrant. I’m learning a lot. Despite all the legislation, enacting policy is one thing but implementing it is something totally different.
ADN: Well what is the most surprising thing you’ve learned since being in this role?
CW: I think the most surprising thing I’ve learned is just how big the agency really is. Being in the Legislature and working on these bills and I kept thinking well you’ve got these officers and this is what they do and the board members and that’s it. There are over 750 employees.
ADN: Oh wow, and is that including the parole officers?
CW: Yes, it’s in 62 counties. And we’re actually understaffed for the population we’re monitoring. We’re monitoring 50-60,000 people. So, that was the most surprising thing and I should have known that as a legislator but I think in dealing with it as a legislator you deal with it in spoon sizes. No one digs that deep into it. And when I got here I had no idea it was this big. So that was a surprise. I’m learning something new every day but there is a lot of institutional knowledge here. And I will also say I have my, I call them my 25-year-old caucus group, and I remember when I went into the Legislature when I was 30 and had a lot of people mentoring me, and now I have like 12, 25-year-olds who do various things but they are committed, dedicated and have criminal justice backgrounds. So that’s been fun but the learning curve has been steep. I’ve learned more from this process. But it’s been good. But yea the size of the agency and the number of services. I had no idea the number of services, I said “we do that?” So you learn.
ADN: I know, it’s always daunting going into a new role and being the director of something like this, I can’t imagine.
CW: It’s interesting. My style is very different from Judge Graddick. I do a lot of one-on-ones, I want to be very transparent, as I can be with the law but I want people to feel like they know what we do and what’s going on. I think a big part of this agency’s problem is education. Like what do y’all do? Y’all either keep people in or let them out. I’ll tell you something I’m learning. Pardons for example, we haven’t done pardons in a while. I signed seven the other day and its stuff like that that the average population just doesn’t know.
ADN: Well this has been very knowledgeable for me, that’s for sure.