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State ordered to show prison hiring plan

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A federal judge this week questioned whether the Alabama Department of Corrections can meet required hiring goals and gave it until today to show him a written plan for getting more staff in its prisons. 

“And the bottom line is that the court stands ready now to assist in addressing this problem if there is one,” U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said in his Monday order.

Thompson previously ordered ADOC to hire about 2,000 additional correctional staff members by early 2022 and quarterly ADOC staffing reports are now required.

The latest report, filed June 1, shows ADOC is still more than 2,000 staff members away from the goal, with less than two years to meet it. Alabama prisons have an overall vacancy rate of 54.9%.

The ADOC would need to gain approximately 213 officers and approximately 23 supervisors per quarter for each of the eight remaining quarters in order to meet that order, Thompson said this week.

“The court’s assessment of the reports reveals that, for the past 12 months of available data, since the second quarter of 2019 through the first quarter of 2020, there has been an overall increase in the number of officers from 1,301 total officers to 1,413 total officers and an overall decrease in the number of supervisors from 359 supervisors to 313 supervisors,” Thompson’s Monday order said.

Thompson highlighted a decrease in ADOC supervisors. Since the first required staffing report in 2017, no increase in supervisors has been reported.

The increase in the number of total officers is the result of a rise in the number of basic correctional officers, which grew from 56 when they were first implemented in the second quarter of 2019 to 294 in the first quarter of 2020. 

In December, Thompson expressed concern about hiring increases based on the addition of lesser-trained staff members. Officials from ADOC defended the hires.

A comment about the order or hiring challenges was not available from ADOC on Thursday.

The Legislature this year increased ADOC’s budget by $40 million in an effort to raise pay and increase benefits for correctional officers.

A new basic correctional officer earns $31,469 per year. New correctional officers earn about $38,335 per year, according to ADOC.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is the Senate’s point person on prisons and criminal justice. On Thursday he said he thinks the ADOC is doing the best it can to hire additional staff. He said the state’s recent record-low unemployment rates have shrunk the hiring pool.

“You can put the money in, but you have to have people who want to do the job,” Ward said.

More recently,  the coronavirus has also slowed down recruitment and training efforts, Ward said.

And the virus has caused health concerns in crowded prisons.

“The jobs are even less attractive now,” Ward said.

Thompson ordered ADOC by today to confirm his calculations and “regardless of whether the court’s calculations are correct or simply the overall picture is as depicted, the defendants should explain how they plan to meet the February 20, 2022, deadline.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center and others in 2014 sued ADOC over the conditions within the prisons and lack of medical and mental health care.

In 2017, Thompson ruled mental health care was “horrendously inadequate” in state prisons and said that low staffing and overcrowding are the “overarching issues.”

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