The WAAY 31 I-TEAM is digging deeper into problems inside Alabama’s prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice and the state are working on a long term solution. Meanwhile, just days ago, the state’s deadline passed for contractors to prove they’re qualified to build three new prisons.
All this comes after the DOJ warned in April that conditions inside Alabama’s prisons are unsafe and unconstitutional. The findings came from what the DOJ calls an investigation of unparalleled scope into Alabama’s prisons that began in 2016.
So far, the state has avoided a federal lawsuit and possibly even a takeover by demonstrating a willingness to find a solution. WAAY 31 took an in-depth look into one of four key problem areas: staffing at Alabama prisons.
Alabama’s Department of Corrections has more than its share of problems. There are bad facilities and some well-run prisons.
“Like Limestone out here locally, which is one of the best-run prisons in the state,” David Wise told WAAY 31. Wise was deputy warden at Limestone Correctional Facility.
He also served as warden at St. Clair, one of the state’s maximum security prisons.
“St. Clair has had a violent history and a violent culture,” Wise said.
That violent culture is one of the factors that got the federal government’s attention and its warning. U.S. Attorney Jay Town is the point man for the feds. He’s working with state leaders to come up with Alabama’s response to the DOJ.
WAAY 31 asked Town where the process stands right now. He said the state’s willingness to talk and work toward change is encouraging. He called it an “important effort on the part of the state to resolve the Eighth Amendment problems in ADOC. The parties are presently negotiating policy solutions, along with engaging in legislative solutions discussions.“
Town said he hopes Alabama avoids federal litigation. However, any announcement could be months out. Town’s role is to make sure Alabama can keep prisoners safe and make sure inmates don’t suffer cruel and unusual punishment.
“I really believe the federal government has no choice than to pay close attention to Alabama’s prison system,” Wise said. “This is a thing that’s been kicked down the road too long. The state legislature has neglected it too long.”
Wise retired from the Alabama Department of Corrections in 2010. Knowing the system inside-out, he’s followed violence, including inmate-on-inmate rape and murder, inside the state’s prisons. From 2015 to 2017, there were 22 homicides.
Wise says Alabama’s prison problem didn’t happen overnight. Approaching double capacity, the state’s tried but failed to fix the problem.
“This is a problem that’s been neglected for 30 years,” Wise said.
The Alabama Department of Corrections released a strategic plan taking it through the year 2022. It addresses four main problem areas. At the top of that list is staffing. More precisely, understaffing.
“In my opinion, the prison system’s in a state of crisis, number one because of the lack of staffing,” Wise said. “It’s dangerous. It’s extremely dangerous.”
Alabama has already put some plans in place to fix the prison staffing problem. The legislature approved a $40 million increase in prison funding. Three-quarters of the $40 million is earmarked to hire 500 more correctional officers.
“You’ve got the convicts basically running the prisons right now. They run officers out of the prison because there aren’t enough of them and the convicts know it,” Wise said.
Part of the increased prison budget would also go for a twenty percent pay raise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says, last year, Alabama’s average pay for correctional officers was $36,760 a year. That’s far less than the national average of $49,300.
“When the economy’s good, who wants to take a 30 or 40 thousand dollar a year job?” Wise said.
He worries staffing is the root of many problems in Alabama prisons.
“They’re not addressing the staffing issue hard-core enough and if they don’t, you’re going to start to see corrections officers getting killed,” he said.
It’s a problem David Wise warns could have deadly consequences for corrections officers.
“Now you have to worry about getting stabbed or killed and whether you’re going to go home or not. It’s gotten bad. I mean, it’s really gotten bad,” he said.
Besides staffing, the Department of Corrections’ strategic plan identifies infrastructure, programming and culture as areas to improve.