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Op-ed: Let’s Have an Honest Discussion about COVID-19 in Alabama’s Prisons

By: JEFF DUNN, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections

Since the onset of COVID-19, I’ve exhausted the list of adjectives describing the breadth and depth of the impact of the coronavirus on our nation and, specifically, on Alabama’s correctional system.

In a matter of weeks, our country saw its healthcare system pushed to the brink. We sadly lost many lives. We saw critical supply chains stressed to the breaking point. We witnessed entire business sectors decimated and countless livelihoods lost. We learned what the word “essential” really means. We all experienced the negative psychological impacts of being stripped of our daily routines and the freedoms we take for granted. We also experienced real fear for our health, safety, and security.

While I would never presume to minimize the fears engendered and threats posed by COVID-19 to the public, these issues are both heightened and magnified not only for all those who work and live within a correctional institution, but also for their families and loved ones.

From a design standpoint, I have heard some liken prisons to petri dishes, and that comparison is not entirely off-base – particularly for our state’s crowded facilities. While bars and fences play an obvious and critical role in securing our facilities, they are not effective barriers to prevent a microscopic menace from entering. In addition, an enclosed environment housing a disproportionately unhealthy population where social distancing is virtually impossible, coupled with COVID-19’s highly contagious nature and long incubation period, creates a recipe for a potential health disaster if not managed correctly.

From an operational standpoint, there is safety and security in the “routine” of day-to-day prison operations. Routine is the basis of proper process and procedure, and serves as asource of stability for incarcerated individuals as well as those responsible for their care and safety. Disruption, on the other hand, is a catalyst for the “unexpected” – it is the basis of unrest, discord and, ultimately, danger in a correctional environment.

It should come as no surprise, then, that any significant, prolonged, and unexpected change to routine prison operations is an inherent threat to safety and security, and the disruption caused within prisons by COVID-19 has been on a new, never-before-seen level.

For correctional systems, successfully managing COVID-19 and its associated disruptions is a complex endeavor that cannot be reduced to simple conversations about testing data or be solved through the sudden release of unrehabilitated inmates back into society. Reflexive thinking and impulsive reactions are unhelpful and, frankly, dangerous to our inmate population, staff, and the public at-large. All operational and strategic decisions made by correctional leaders must therefore effectively balance public health with public safety, which is no easy feat given the unprecedented nature of this pandemic.

To be clear, for the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) – as well as for correctional systems across the country – the measure of success in our ongoing fight against COVID-19 is not zero positive tests. That was never possible nor realistic.

So, on March 18, 2020, armed with the latest and best available information state and national health experts could provide, we responded aggressively in order to mitigate the spread of the virus within Alabama’s correctional system.

We locked down our facilities to the outside world. All visitation and non-essential entry into our facilities was shut down. Onsite staffing was reduced to those who performed mission-critical job functions. Inmate transfers between facilities were halted with few exceptions. Educational and rehabilitative programs were paused. New inmate intakes from county jails were restricted. Non-emergent medical appointments were rescheduled. Trainings were postponed. Extensive sanitation processes were implemented. Infrared thermal cameras were installed to support enhanced entry screening processes. More than 100,000 face masks were produced to protect our inmates and staff.

We knew from the beginning that, even with these (and many more) preventative measure in place, the real measure of success in our fight against COVID-19 – just like for our communities – is about slowing the impact of the virus and maintaining critical medical services, which we are doing and will continue to do. It’s about doing everything we can to protect those who we know have been exposed and preventing them from potentially infecting others. Finally, it’s about caring for those who do get sick and helping them fully recover.

This is what we are doing, and this is what we remain committed to in addition to the important mission of the Department.

More than three months after implementing our aggressive prevention and mitigation processes and procedures, our fight against this insidious threat is ongoing. We continue to track and report on our evolving response every day so that we can make operational shifts based on data and evidence when and where needed. Amidst these many efforts, our highest priority – maintaining the safety, security, and well-being of our staff, inmates, and the public – remains unchanged.

During this experience, one thing has become crystal clear to me: while COVID-19 has exposed some of our Department’s greatest weaknesses and opportunities for improvement, just as it has for countless other agencies, it also has shined a bright light on the ADOC’s single greatest strength and resource – our team.

What I’d like each of you reading this to know is that, given the extraordinary nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, our staff has not just risen to the occasion, but rather has soared – faithfully serving the citizens of Alabama, despite incredible personal risks. The ADOC team has demonstrated resilience, courage, and selflessness against a tenacious adversary.

This tells me two things: one, we are going to beat this virus eventually, and two, there is no challenge or adversity too great for this group of professionals to overcome together. I believe this in my heart of hearts.

It’s no secret that the ADOC faces adversity. I plan to honestly explore in-depth several of our issues about which you may have read to provide deeper context and perspective from my view as Commissioner of the Department. I hope that, as I publish subsequent articles, you will take the time to read and learn more about the challenges themselves – how they came to be, why they persist, and what we are doing to solve them.

But today, I only ask one thing of you – thank a correctional worker. Send them a message via text or on social media. Go up to them (with a mask on and from an appropriate distance) and extend your gratitude for the critical work they do every day to protect your safety and well-being. Correctional staff take on challenges every day that only the bravest among us can handle. Their courage cannot and will not be discounted, and I am confident that those who work in corrections will go down in history as true heroes who helped maintain order in a time defined by confusion.

President Ronald Reagan once said that, “No group of Americans has a more difficult or less publicly visible job than the brave men and women who work in our correctional facilities.”

He’s right. And he said that in the absence of a global pandemic.

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