Prison problems can be overcome

Published 12:05 pm Wednesday, September 13, 2006

By Staff
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part column.
The highest priority for Alabama prisons must be given to programs that can reverse the positive 119 inmates per month (700 in - 581 out) to a negative. Until then, all &#8220fixes” are temporary and become increasingly costly.
Fortunately, the Governor's Task Force on Prison Crowding considered this issue and provided a road map. Four of its recommendations, if aggressively implemented, can reverse the prison population growth trend:
Sentencing reform: If 75 percent of our circuit judges use the voluntary guidelines established by the Sentencing Commission, the Commission projects bed requirements for prisons can be reduced by 500 the first year; growing to 3,000 beds the fifth year.
Community Corrections: Programs in all 67 counties could divert up to 200 non-violent felons to a home-based corrections program each month.
Technical Violator Centers: Pardons and Paroles is establishing a Technical Violator Center for minor probation and parole violators. This program can save 50 spaces per month.
Pardons and Paroles has already established transition centers to prepare inmates for outside life. A 300-bed facility for women is in operation in Wetumpka and a new men's facility has just opened in Thomasville.
Combine impact of these programs could save 365 speaces per month.
In the next year, we will create about 850 new medium beds in our existing facilities by cramming in more beds, and we will &#8220temporarily” contract about 1100 male and 300 female beds in private facilities.
We will also contract for a 400-bed therapeutic education facility to reduce recidivism and lower inmates from medium to work release level two to three years earlier. This program can be self-funding within two years.
Recruiting and retaining ADOC staff, especially correctional officers, is our second priority. An intensive effort aimed at recruiting 450 new correctional officers each year is underway as is a manpower survey that will validate our personnel requirements for correctional officers. The department will also seek legislation to make the salary adjustments necessary to recruit and retain staff, recognizing the salary disparity with other law enforcement agencies is about $12 million annually. Savings from reduced overtime costs may also be enough to pay for hiring 300 correctional officers.
The department will contract with an engineering/architectural firm specializing in correctional facilities to inspect and recommend repairs that can be accomplished. Some older facilities may not be economically repairable and will be considered for closing. The survey will determine the cost of bringing all facilities up to accepted codes, including the Americans with Disabilities Act. The repairs will be prioritized based on the most urgent needs and will be accomplished over seven to eight years. The Action Plan calls for the costs to be covered by increased funds generated by prison labor.
The department will contract out its sewage treatment operations for all facilities. This will avoid capitol outlays of about $8 million to correct current environmental problems but will increase monthly operating expenses.
In conclusion, the department will fully implement the recommendations of the Governor's Task For on Prison Crowding on the governor's order to take whatever actions are necessary and expedient to bring the operations of the department into the twenty-first century. Key among these mandates will be upgrading our ancient computer system for keeping track of all operations, especially inmate records, and the automation of transcript information. The cumulative effect of these innovations should be a decline in the inmate populations and a much more efficiently operated system resulting in lower costs to tax payers for inmate incarceration for years to come.
Richard Allen is commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections.