Alabama prison problems outlined

Published 11:38 am Monday, September 11, 2006

By Staff
Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part special report from Richard F. Allen, Alabama's State Prison Commissioner.
The Department of Corrections was once described as an agency in which every part was broken. For as long as most people can remember, the department has been beset with the problem of prison crowding and other problems resulting from generations of under funding and benign neglect.
When Gov. Bob Riley appointed me commissioner, he gave me a written mandate that can be summarized in two words - &#8220fix it” - pledging his full support.
I quickly discovered that, while the department faced many problems, its staff - both at the central office and the institutions - were not the problem. To the contrary - they are dedicated, competent, hard working professionals who, given adequate resources, have the experience and know how to fix all the system's problems. In this two part series, I will first summarize the wide-ranging challenges the department is confronting and, second, I will discuss the plan to meet these challenges.
The department faces four major problems: 1) Prison crowding at medium or higher-level security facilities; 2) Personnel shortages, especially at the correctional officer level; 3) An aging and poorly maintained physical plant; and, 4) Soaring inmate healthcare costs. Our multi-faceted action plan provides solutions to all our problems - major and minor - and identifies required resources. While some resources may come from funds generated by inmate labor, a portion must come from the state general fund. Most, if not all, of our problems are the result of the unprecedented growth in inmate population in the last 15 years. The solution - achieving a reversal in inmate growth - while critical and possible, is largely beyond the sole control of the Department.
The overcrowding problem: the overcrowding problem is easy to understand: on average each month about 700 medium or higher security inmates enter the system and only about 581 leave - requiring 119 number can be reduced to a negative number, all solutions, including squeezing more beds into existing space, outsourcing to private prisons, and building new facilities are only temporary fixes. Eventually all space fills up and more must be procured.
Staff shortages: The department is authorized 4,434 total personnel, but only has 3,547 - 20 percent fewer than authorized. For correctional officers, 2,927 are authorized with 2,483 on hand - a shortage of 444. Our officer to prisoner ratio is 1:10 while surrounding states average 1:6. While 1:10 may seem adequate on its face, prisoners must be guarded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Every day hundreds of officers are away - either on military leave, in training or guarding prisoners in hospitals or in transit - resulting, at times, in one officer supervising up to 250-300 prisoners.
The problem is getting worse. Recruiting and retention of correctional officers has suffered recently. We currently lose about 30 officers each moth to retirement or higher paying law enforcement jobs. While we can train 450 officers each year, the last class graduated only 29 - resulting in a first quarter 2006 net loss of 61 officers.
Aging Facilities: The department's newest corrections facility was constructed in 1998 and the oldest in 1939. The only female facility was built in 1942 and the average major facility's age is 32 years. Repairs and renovations have been on an emergency basis only. Roofs leak, sewage systems over flow, kitchen equipment is worn out, plumbing and electrical problems are widespread, locks don't work properly, and no smoke or fire alarms exist in some prisoner sleeping areas. Many prisoners are housed in mobile home or portable classrooms long past their useful life, while others reside in warehouses or industrial facilities (i.e., canning shop). Some facilities need major renovations while others don't economically justify repair. None of our facilities fully comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Inmate Health Care: The cost of inmate health care has spiraled and is driven by four factors: 1) many more inmates; 2) the severity of illness and diseases the inmates bring in due to a lack of free world health care; 3) new and more costly medical technology including advanced drug treatments and court ordered higher levels of care; and 4) physical plant limitations that do not allow for in prison long term or advance care services, causing us to use costly free world community hospitals and doctors. The transportation and security for sick inmates receiving care in the free world costs a significant amount of money and taxes staff resources. In the last three years, the cost of inmate health care has risen from $44.1 million to nearly $80 million. These costs, including medical and mental health services, have accounted for about 55 percent of the increase in general fund dollars appropriated to the department of the past three years.
In my next installment, I will describe how we propose to attack these problems.