How do other states deal with overcrowded, understaffed prisons?
Few, if any, state prison budgets are stretched as tightly as Alabama’s
Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The state of Washington has about 19,000 inmates, slightly fewer than Alabama. But the similarity ends there.
Washington’s prison workforce includes 3,500 correctional officers - triple the size of Alabama’s and better paid.
Washington also has newer and less crowded prisons – with better funding than what Alabama's system has gotten.
Alabama prisons do have one thing Washington's does not – violence and abuse so bad that the U.S. Justice Department has stepped in.
The DOJ, following a more than two-year investigation, issued a report last month alleging that conditions inside Alabama’s men’s prisons violate the constitutional rights of prisoners because of the level of violence, sexual abuse and other dangers.
Alabama is now nearing a 49-day deadline to fix some of those problems. The report by the DOJ and three U.S. attorneys from Alabama said overcrowding and understaffing compounded the problems.
That reinforced the findings in an ongoing, five-year-old federal lawsuit over health care for inmates. In that case, the Alabama Department of Corrections is under a court order to add 2,200 correctional officers over the next few years, a number based on ADOC’s own analysis.
But that hasn't happened.
While staffing isn't the only issue. It's among the biggest differences, as Alabama compares itself to other, more successful states.
The former head of the prison system in Washington state said Alabama needs a much larger workforce to manage the five maximum security and eight medium security prisons for men,
“They just don’t have enough resources,” said Eldon Vail, who is an expert witness in the health care lawsuit. “They don’t have enough staff. That’s the first step. They’ve got to get enough officers to keep each other safe and to keep the prisoners safe.
“You get that platform in place you can start to develop programs that have an impact not only on prison safety but on community safety, which is ultimately the goal.”
Personnel is the biggest cost for prison systems. And few, if any, state prison budgets are stretched as tightly as Alabama’s.
The Legislature has increased funding and appears likely to do so again next year. But that’s from a rock bottom starting point.
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Lowest spending per inmate
A 2015 report by the Vera Institute said Alabama spent $14,780 per inmate, less than any other state.
Alabama even trailed neighboring states by thousands of dollars per inmate each year in 2015. Kentucky and Louisiana spent about $2,000 more per inmate than Alabama, while Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas spent $4,000 to $6,000 more.
Alabama looked worse when compared to states outside the South. The national average was about $33,000 per inmate, more than double what Alabama spent.
The ADOC’s annual report for 2017 said daily spending per inmate rose to $52 in Alabama, which is slightly less than $19,000 a year.
More ideas for Alabama
- One of the recommendations in the Justice Department report is to add 500 employees for security purposes within six months.
- Gov. Kay Ivey and legislators are proposing pay increases and bonuses to boost recruiting and retention of correctional officers.
- Another proposal is to create a new basic correctional officer position. Candidates would have a shorter training course than the 12-week law enforcement training required of correctional officers and could be on the job more quickly.
Better pay for COs
Warren Averett CPAs and Advisors, a company hired by the ADOC to conduct a staffing analysis as part of the inmate health care court case, found low pay is one factor that cripples the ADOC’s efforts to hire and keep officers.
The mean salary for Alabama correctional officers and jailers is $35,370, the report says, compared to $44,490 for police and sheriff’s patrol officers.
The report recommended boosting the pay for correctional officer trainees from about $29,000 to the range of $36,000 to $38,000.
Warren Averett also recommended signing and retention bonuses for completion of training and for completion of one, two and three years on the job.
Better pay in Washington
The range of pay for a level one correctional officer in Washington is about $36,000 to about $48,000, according to the Washington State Department of Corrections. A level two officer represented by the Teamsters can earn $42,000 to $56,000.
A Washington state prison spokesperson say the annual average pay for department of corrections employees is $76,500, which includes all employees but the majority are correctional officers.
“It’s basically a living wage,” Vail said. “It’s a pretty stable agency. So, if you like the work and you’re good at it and you hang around long enough and you want to promote, you’re going to have that opportunity.”
Vail, the former head of the Washington prison system, said an affiliation with the Teamsters Union gives correctional officers in that state political clout.
How far is Alabama willing to go to fund prisons?
The Alabama House of Representatives recently approved a General Fund budget that would increase the General Fund appropriation for the Alabama Department of Corrections to $517 million in 2020, $40 million more than this year and $70 million more than last year.
Meanwhile, Washington's budget this year is $528 million..
For comparison, Alabama has a population of 4.9 million and Washington 7.5 million. Alabama's prison population is 486 (down from 571 in 2016) per 100,000 population and Washington's is 262 per 100,000, according to the latest numbers from a DOJ report issued last week.
In Alabama, the prison debate has focused on new facilities.
The Ivey administration is developing a plan to request proposals from companies to build three men’s prisons holding 3,000 or more inmates and lease them to the state. Some lawmakers said they expect separate legislative proposals on prison construction.
The DOJ report stated “decrepit conditions are common throughout Alabama’s prisons.” The report said new facilities would not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional conditions.
Vail said new prisons built in Washington state in the 1990s and 2000s were a major factor in improving safety and staffing.
Vail said the prisons were designed with central, large open spaces designed for interaction between officers and inmates outside their cells, an approach he called direct supervision.
Officers were trained to control behavior through verbal skills to the extent possible.
“When you’re in that sort of in-the-round environment you get to know the prisoners,” Vail said. “You know when they’re off their baseline.”
He said officers try to teach inmates to check the errors in their thinking that lead them to lash out and get in trouble.
“That kind of interaction is possible in direct supervision,” Vail said. “You’ve got to have enough staff to do it. You’ve got to train them to do it. But in hindsight, I think that’s been huge in terms of the success in Washington.”
Experts and advocates say Alabama can borrow ideas from criminal justice reforms in other states. Those states made changes that send fewer offenders to crowded and costly prisons, placing more emphasis on supervision, accountability and treatment than incarceration.
The Alabama Legislature has done that too, at least to some extent, passing sentencing guidelines and criminal justice reforms that have dropped the prison population from about 25,000 in 2014 to about 20,000.
The DOJ report, however, said the 13 men’s prisons still have about 180 percent of the inmate population they were designed to hold. "Alabama has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the nation," the report states.
Washington, meanwhile, reports its percent of prison population to operational capacity to be at 100 percent.
Jay Town, U.S. District Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, has said the Legislature should consider changing penalties for some drug and property offenses. Town is the lead U.S. attorney for the DOJ investigation.
Other Southern states
Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for public policy and advocacy for Prison Fellowship, a Christian prison advocacy group, said every prison system in America needs significant improvements. But DeRoche and others, including Pat Nolan, director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union, say there are success stories in some states.
They cite Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas as examples.
- A decade ago under former Gov. Nathan Deal, Georgia changed drug crime enforcement to emphasize accountability and treatment for offenders, not incarceration. Starting in 2009, the number of people going to prison dropped 15 percent over five years, including 19 percent fewer black men, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- Texas, in 2007, faced with a projected need for 17,000 new prison beds in five years, began pumping hundreds of millions into drug courts and rehabilitation and education for offenders. Texas has reduced its prison population by 30,000 and closed eight prisons.
- North Carolina saw its prison population drop 9.6 percent from 2011 to 2015, reversing a trend of 29 percent growth from 2000 to 2009, after passing a Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act.
- South Carolina’s prison population declined 14 percent from 2009 to 2016. Nonviolent offenders had made up 48 percent of the prison population, but that dropped to 32 percent.
Change slow to come to Alabama
Federal intervention and the health care lawsuit are driving change in Alabama. Nolan said the prevalence of violence and rape in prisons is disturbing aside from the legal consequences.
“Morally, too, it’s a stain on us as a nation that this would be going on,” Nolan said.
Nolan said he was involved in the drafting of Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law for which former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was a co-sponsor. Massachusetts and San Francisco are examples of jurisdictions where officials have taken a hard stance against prison rapes, Nolan said.
Nolan said state leaders have to make it clear that they won’t cede control of prisons to inmate gangs and won’t turn their heads away from violence and sexual abuse.
“There has to be a signal from the top that this is important; it won’t be tolerated,” Nolan said.
DeRoche said hiring more staff is a good start to fixing Alabama’s prisons. A commitment to change the toxic culture in prisons is also essential, he said.
“Sometimes the most important policy decision is to roll up your sleeves and get involved and not to forget that the people in prison are human beings,” said DeRoche, a former speaker of the House in the Michigan legislature.
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©2019 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
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