MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Facing a federal court order to improve prison conditions and "unacceptably high" rates of violence, Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said Wednesday that the department is seeking state funding to hire 500 additional corrections officers.
Dunn discussed the needs of the state prison system during budget hearings before state lawmakers. He said the agency is seeking a $42 million funding increase, part of which would be used to add officers and to raise officers' pay. He also said Gov. Kay Ivey's administration is reviewing options for building new prisons."
There is a direct correlation between the shortage of officers in our prisons and an increase in violence. The level of violence in our prisons is unacceptably high," Dunn said.
Dunn said the additional 500 officers represent a "down payment" on an order from a federal judge to add as many as 2,000 correctional officers. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ordered the state to overhaul state prisons after finding that Alabama provided "horrendously inadequate" care to mentally ill prisoners.
As of Oct. 1, the department had 2,073 security staff members, Dunn said. Some lawmakers questioned if the department would be able to hire 500 additional officers even with the funding.
"Is it really feasible to be able to hire 500 in a year?" state Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Birmingham, asked.
"I'd say that's the 64 thousand dollar question," Dunn replied.
Dunn also discussed the department's hope of eventually building new prisons to replace aging facilities. The Alabama Legislature previously rejected plans to build three new large prisons and close most existing facilities.
One option under consideration by the administration is to lease facilities built by private developers, a strategy that could bypass the legislative approval required for borrowing money.
"It appears that the administration has kind of cut the Legislature off on this process. Are y'all just doing your own prison reform without us?" Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Prichard, asked Dunn.
Dunn responded that the department is gathering information for Ivey on various options.
"The governor has asked me to present options. ... We are working through that process," Dunn said.
Former Gov. Robert Bentley unsuccessfully sought legislative approval for an $800 million plan to build three new regional prisons for men — as well as a female prison — and to close most existing facilities. The measure failed to win legislative approval after lawmakers raised concerns about the price tag and local job losses when existing prisons closed.
In her inaugural address, Ivey spotlighted the need for "replacing costly, at-risk prison facilities" and said she would be announcing a plan in the coming weeks.
"The status of our corrections system is an Alabama problem that must be solved by an Alabama solution. As your governor, I plan to do so," Ivey said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing inmates in the ongoing lawsuit over health care, said the proposed hiring of 500 new corrections officers "is a piecemeal approach to a much larger problem."
"The state has failed to face the hard truths of its needlessly overcrowded, understaffed, unsafe prison system for years, and that failure has produced a crisis Alabama can no longer ignore," said Ebony Howard, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.