Article originally published here May 11th 2017
By David Wise, who retired as warden of St. Clair Correctional Facility after 28 years with the Alabama Department of Corrections.
With less than a week left in Alabama’s Legislative Session, our lawmakers are rushing to pass a bill calling for construction of four new prisons – three men’s facilities paid for by local municipalities and leased to the Department of Corrections and one women’s facility built by the state.
Why are our lawmakers in such a hurry to put lipstick on a pig?
Facilities are not the main problem plaguing Alabama’s criminal justice system; proper funding and staffing necessary to run our prisons constitutionally and humanely are. Bricks and mortar should not take precedent over resources needed to provide adequate security, medical and mental health treatment, and protection to the public.
I retired after 28 years with the Alabama Department of Corrections, working my way through the ranks at four different facilities and the Training Division. I started my career at St. Clair in 1983 – the year it opened – and ended it there as warden.
I know what it takes to successfully run a prison: proper staffing, adequate funding, legislative support, gubernatorial leadership, and a DOC commissioner who advocates and implements change.
We can’t just lock people up and forget about them. We must take care of them. That requires better training for correctional officers, more programming to keep prisoners from idle time that can lead to violence, and quality medical and mental health care.
I agree that some of our facilities could stand to be replaced. But before we spend millions of dollars on new prisons, there are cosmetic repairs and security enhancements that could be made at a fraction of the cost to improve prison conditions and the environment for both prisoners and staff.
Alabama’s prisons are dangerously understaffed with only half as many correctional officers as needed. Starting salaries are lower than other competing law enforcement jobs, the work environment is unsafe with an abysmal officer to prisoner ratio, and mandatory overtime often requires officers to work double shifts.
Better staffing, better pay and better training are all more critical than new prison facilities.
ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn has said the four new facilities will be so nice that the obstacles of recruiting and retaining officers will be solved. That makes no sense. Unless the state can boost the starting salary for correctional officers by about $7,000 – on par with starting salaries of state troopers, police officers, and sheriff’s deputies – facilities will remain understaffed, the state will continue to shell out millions in overtime pay, and violence will continue to plague our prisons.
The state claims that the new prison plan, which caps bonds at $845 million and would cost more than $1 billion to pay back, will pay for itself with somewhere between $40 to $50 million in annual savings. A majority of the projected savings comes from reduction in staff and overtime spending. That doesn’t add up. If we fully staff our prisons with competitive wages, those savings won’t be realized. If we fail to fully staff our prisons, overtime pay won’t be saved. Either way, Alabama taxpayers will be left paying for these new prisons.
Another area of predicted savings comes from reduced healthcare expenses.
The Department of Corrections is facing a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center for unconstitutional levels of medical and mental health care. The resolution of these cases will significantly increase health care costs. To provide a constitutional-level of care, prisons are going to need additional doctors, nurses and other medical staff as well as more space to adequately treat incarcerated patients.
Shiny new buildings won’t attract more staff or provide better health care. Spending money on constructing new prisons before addressing the real problems plaguing ADOC is pointless.
I encourage our lawmakers to oppose the prison bill. We must develop a comprehensive approach to effectively fix our overcrowded, understaffed and under-resourced prisons. Doing so will take longer than a few days. After all, billions of dollars and people’s lives are on the line.