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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – The frustrations piled up long before Jonathan Truitt ended his career as a corrections officer.

A sergeant at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Truitt started at Holman Correctional Facility in 2008. He had been working in a sawmill and worked out with several correctional officers at a local YMCA, who mentioned the department was hiring. With the economy starting to slip into recession, it seemed like a good move. After more than three years at Holman, Truitt won a promotion to St. Clair in 2012.

The work at the prison — notorious for its violence — grew harder and harder. There were long shifts lasting up to 16 hours. Searches of cell blocks could yield “30 to 40 knives” in a cell block with 24 cells. The equipment COs had, Truitt said, was subpar: Pepper spray cans might be half full, and radios might lack decent batteries or chargers. Keeping order, Truitt said, became ever more difficult. Inmates, he said, were “being assaulted in every way imaginable,” Truitt said in a recent interview, Contraband in the prison, he said, “is out of control.”

Corrections Officer Kenneth Bettis
Corrections Officer Kenneth Bettis

But it was an incident at Truitt’s old prison that led him to step away. In September, Officer Kenneth Bettis, an Iraq War veteran who Truitt worked with at Holman, was stabbed by an inmate; according to the Alabama Department of Corrections, the inmate attacked Bettis for denying him an extra plate of food. Bettis died of injuries two weeks later.

At that point, Truitt said, he thought about the costs to his family should he be killed in the line of duty. He resigned last month. “My original intention was, do 25 years and retire,” he said. “The plans got changed real quick.”

Many other corrections officers have also decided to step away. According to ADOC records, the number of officers assigned to state prisons fell from 2,042 in September 2015 to 1,627 this past September, a 20 percent drop in the workforce. Not only did that drop come on top of a long-term decline in the number of COs in the prisons — there were 2,342 officers assigned to Alabama correctional facilities in September 2011 — it exceeded it, a fact department officials are very aware of.

“We saw the most significant dip in one year than in the past five years,” Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a recent interview.

The state’s prisons had just 45.6 percent of their authorized officers working in the prisons in September. Four medium-security facilities – Bibb, Easterling, Fountain/J.O. Davis and Ventress – had less than a third of their authorized officers working in the facilities.

Turnover in correction officer ranks is not unusual, but staffing issues are becoming more acute because the number of people applying to be corrections officers is falling.

“I think the public has become very aware of the conditions inside our facilities, and that gives people pause,” Dunn said.

The decline in officer ranks has come amid an increase in violence.

Total year-to-date assaults went up from 1,362 reported incidents in September 2015 to 1,764 in September 2016, an increase of 29.5 percent. Reported assaults on staff_including assaults with serious injury and those involving thrown substances – increased from 465 in September 2015 to 521 in September 2016, a jump of 12 percent.

Eric Wynn, released from St. Clair on Aug. 29 after serving 10 years in various state prisons on drug charges, called the facility “extremely dangerous.”

“It was like a jungle,” he said. “If you weren’t strong enough or didn’t carry a knife, your property got taken.”

At St. Clair, reported year-to-date assaults increased from 157 in September 2015 to 249 in September 2016, a 58.5 percent increase, though an ADOC intervention in the prisn last spring helped reduce monthly assaults down through September.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who sponsored a major prison reform bill in 2015, said “morale is at an all-time low” for corrections officers.

“It’s the most dangerous law enforcement job in the state, but they’re paid the least,” he said.

A corrections officer trainee starts making $28,516.80 a year, compared to $35,589.60 for a state trooper trainee.

Dunn says he will include money for a pay raise in his 2018 budget request, though the department was still working on the details of proposal last month. The corrections budget, and any adjustment in pay, will need to be approved by the Alabama Legislature. Dunn and Gov. Robert Bentley will also renew a campaign to replace most of the state’s prisons with four new facilities, which they say will improve safety for staff and inmates in the facilities.

There were high-profile outbursts of violence last year, including the murder of two inmates at Elmore County Correctional Facility, and riots at Holman where, in March, the warden was stabbed. The drop in staffing, Dunn said, plays a role.

“Could we say if one more officer or two more officers could have prevented (the riots)?” Dunn said. “I dont think we can say that definitively. But I know if we’d had 20 officers there, we’d have a different dynamic in the prison.”

The loss of corrections officers has driven inmate-to-officer ratios up throughout the system. There were 11.8 inmates for every corrections officer in September 2015, according to ADOC numbers; that increased to 13.4 inmates for every corrections officer this past September. In Bibb, Easterling and Fountain correctional facilities, the ratio exceeded 20 inmates for every one corrections officer.

That means long hours for the officers who work in the facilities.

“They don’t have proper equipment, (and) they work tons of overtime,” said Randall McGilberry, president of the Alabama Corrections Officer Association. “If something did break out, a lot of guys would be so fatigued they wouldn’t be able to respond properly.” McGilberry also faulted what he described as “poor management” within the prison system.

Truitt plans to go back to college and finish a degree in education. He said he worked with good officers in the prisons and tried to help inmates “that were trying to better their lives and get out” by assisting them with GED classes or entry into trade schools.

But the violence and the lack of support, he said, finally became too much for him.

“It was just no longer worth it to stay there,” he said.