Alabama Corrections Commissioner: Prisons still struggling to attract staff
The head of the Alabama Department of Corrections told legislators Wednesday that the department is still struggling to fill vacant positions.
Commissioner John Hamm told the Joint Prison Oversight Committee that the department has 700 to 800 vacant security positions and about 200 vacant administrative jobs. Hamm said recruiting remains a key problem for the department as it deals with the trendlines that contribute to the dire conditions of the state’s prison system: an increasing prison population housed in aging facilities with few avenues for release.
“I wish there was a way that, probably not an Uncle Sam poster, ‘we want you,’” said Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook. “But a way to communicate to Alabamians, ‘this is a great career path. You want a challenge, you want obstacles to overcome, but we need you in DOC staff.’”
Hamm told the committee that only 1,700 of 2,420 budgeted security positions in Corrections have been filled. Only 1,200 of 1,400 administrative staff positions have been filled.
Many of the administrative vacancies are in food service, with 32 of the 89 jobs vacant. That is followed by accounting, with 31 of 122 positions remaining to be filled and jobs classified as treatment, with 30 vacancies for 94 total positions.
The department was able to hire 60 corrections officers earlier this month.
The ongoing shortage of corrections officers has helped fuel a tide of physical and sexual violence in men’s prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the state in 2020, alleging that the violence violated inmates’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne said that the agency had a positive net gain of one corrections officer back in April, reversing several months of recorded losses.
“That one officer, I mean I was tickled to death because that had stopped a downward trend for months, and months, and months, for probably a couple of years,” Hamm said. “Once we got that one, that started going up.”
Corrections had a net gain of five corrections officers in May and 33 in June. But the increase have barely made up the gap. Corrections needs 3,000 officers to work in the system and would need to hire 1,300 additional people to make up the gap.
This recruitment issue is happening at a time when the prison population is increasing. According to a chart that Hamm presented, the prison population in the state has increased dramatically since January 2021, going from about 18,000 to almost 21,000.
There was a precipitous increase in November 2021, when there were 18,377 people in DOC’s custody, and February of last year when it ballooned to more than 20,000.
Corrections stopped accepting additional inmates during the COVID-19 outbreak, which led to population reductions for a time.
According to Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, that problem began in November 2019.
“That is when we changed the parole board,” he said. “You go from 2019 to 2023, now we are well over 20,000 people. There was a trend when the population was going up and the number of parole hearings we were having, and the release rate dropped tremendously.”
The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles granted almost half of all parole applications before the Legislature changed the board in 2019. This year the board is on track to grant fewer than 10% of all grants.
“If folks are not a threat to public safety, I think we ought to be removing them from the system,” Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville.
That dynamic of an increasing prison population and continued shortages in the number of corrections officers continues to strain the state’s criminal justice system.
“I get emails of pictures, videos, where it is obvious, they have gone hours without a corrections officer in sight anywhere,” England said.
In August, videos showed inmate Derrol Shaw walking around the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer with a gun that he allegedly took from a corrections officer. He then proceeded to unlock several doors, allowing others in the facility to roam the area freely.
“When we can get someone to come in for an interview, they decline because they don’t want to work for Corrections because of what they read or seen in the media,” Hamm said of people applying to vacant administrative positions.