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Ward Receives Business Champion Award

Shelby County Reporter- FROM STAFF REPORTS

MONTGOMERY – Alabama Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) received the Business Champion Award on Feb. 21 for sponsorship of legislation to regulate lawsuit lenders and bring stability and fairness to the tort process.

The award was presented by the Business Council of Alabama president and CEO William J. Canary, Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama president and CEO Jeremy Arthur and Greater Shelby County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Kirk Mancer.

“Senator Ward in sponsoring the Alabama Lawsuit Lending Act is to be recognized and commended for his steadfast commitment to legal fairness and for his opposition to lawsuit interference by third parties with a financial interest in them,” Canary said.

“Aggressive lawsuit lending poses challenges to Alabama’s legal system by charging exhorbitant interest rates on loans that can affect how plaintiffs negotiate the process,” Mancer said. “Suppose the loan is so great that plaintiffs refuse a reasonable offer from the defendant in hopes of a bigger jackpot that may or may not occur?”

“Lawsuit loans are not within our state regulations but should be just as any other lender,” Arthur said.

Lawsuit lending reform is on the BCA’s 2017 legislative agenda. Bipartisan majorities have passed a form of this legislation in the last two years, but a few senators have used procedural rules to stop reform efforts.

A former House member, Ward is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Business Champion Award recognizes legislators for sponsorship of and support of policies that better Alabama’s business climate and lives of employees, families and citizens

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Committee Fields Prison Construction Concerns

Montgomery Advertiser

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, knows the problems that beleaguer the Alabama prison system and the concerns facing the prison construction bill, and he’s not shy about admitting that building four new prisons to the tune of $800 million — or $1.5 billion after 30 years — will not solve most of those problems.

The current prison system is plagued by overcrowding, dwindling corrections officer ranks, increasing levels of violence and a notable lack of mental health and substance abuse treatment. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday afternoon, those opposed to the prison construction bill voiced their concerns about the bill: What will happen to local economies that depend on their prisons for revenue? Will the new facilities will be adequately staffed? Will mental health programs be implemented and what if, after all of this, the new prisons are still overcrowded?

Taking the podium to defend the bill, Ward acknowledged the plan’s singular focus of attempting to alleviate the load on an overcrowded prison system that ended 2016 at 175 percent capacity and admitted that not all problems would be addressed by the bill.

“I would love to come in here today to tell you we have a bill that solves all our problems. It does not. It took us decades to get into the hole we’re in, and we’re in a hole. That’s proven by the budget issues we have, by the violence inside the system, by the lawsuits we face. No one bill will solve all that and I won’t pretend to tell you that it will,” Ward said. “Looking at the facilities we have and talking to the experts we have, there’s one thing for certain: You’re going to build at some point. The question is do you build on your terms or do you build when someone has a gun to your head telling you how to build?”

During the public hearing portion, Southern Poverty Law Center Associate Legal Director Ebony Howard raised questions about why the plan has no guidelines for doctor/nurse ratios or medical staff competence, but Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, said the bill "isn't about mental health and the bill isn't about sentencing reform."

"This idea does not solve all of our issues, but it does solve one of our issues," Williams said referring to overcrowding.

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Bill to Remove Judicial Override Clears Senate

MONTGOMERY — A bill that would end Alabama’s judicial override sentencing system, which allows judges to override juries and impose the death penalty, passed the State Senate Thursday with a near-unanimous vote.

Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery), sponsored the bill, which would prohibit a judge from overriding a jury’s sentence. Under the bill, at least 10 of 12 jurors must vote for death for a defendant to receive the sentence.

 

“It wasn’t an anti-death-penalty vote,” Brewbaker said Wednesday. “It was cleaning up a procedure that is detrimental to the jury system and calls into question jurisprudence in Alabama.”

Brewbaker, and Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, referred to ending judicial override as a “moral” issue.

“This is not an indictment or somehow anything against our judges,” Ward said. “At the end of the day, it is morally wrong for us to allow this to continue in our State. We have a jury system and a jury process for a reason.”

Only one senator, Sen. Tripp Pittman, R-Daphne, voted against the measure.

“I have confidence in judges sitting through trials that are very complicated,” Pittman told APR. “Judges have my confidence to have that discretion. I think it’s important. … I do support the death penalty. I do think that the judges need that prerogative. Sometimes crimes are just so heinous that they rise to that level.”

Last year, the Alabama became the last state in the US with judicial override after the US Supreme Court ruled against Florida’s judicial override sentencing scheme. Over the next several months, the Florida Supreme Court and the Delaware Supreme Court killed judicial override in those states.

But in January, The US Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to Alabama’s system of judicial override from several death row inmates, including Thomas Arthur, who — after another Supreme Court decision Monday — will be scheduled for his eight execution.

Arthur escaped seven previous execution dates unscathed because of several appeals. Though Arthur’s case, in particular, didn’t affect Pittman’s decision today, he said, it is an example of an appeals process that needs to be reviewed.

“I think you do need to look at how to run those appeals concurrently,” Pittman said. “I do think the Tommy Arthur case is an example of how someone can have seven different executions scheduled and are able to abuse the system in a case where a man was paid to execute a woman’s husband.”

Even with Alabama’s legal victories, the State’s system remains the only “hybrid sentencing system” in the country. Juries give a nonbinding advisory sentence — either for death or for life — and the judge then makes the final determination.

In Arthur’s case, his trial jury voted 11-1 for an advisory verdict of death, but the vote wasn’t unanimous, as most other states’ death-penalty sentences require. Under Brewbaker’s bill, Arthur still would have gotten the death penalty.

Brewbaker said his bill as written was not retroactive, but the Senate passed an amendment to the bill that would more clearly define that anyone who received the death penalty from a judge before its passage will not be able to have it reversed under this law.

Since 1976, more than 92 percent of 107 overrides have resulted in a judge imposing the death penalty when a trial jury voted to recommend life in prison, unlike Arthur’s case, according to Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative.

The Supreme Court decisions this year effectively ruled Alabama’s system constitutional, but that didn’t stop 30 senators from passing Brewbaker’s bill Thursday.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, has similar legislation in the House, which would also end judicial override but would require a unanimous jury vote for death. England’s version would put Alabama in line with all other states, which require a unanimous jury vote.

“I think it’s clear that the will of the body is there to do something about judicial override overall,” England said. “I think there may be a couple of differences of opinion about the specifics like unanimity of the jury. I think it will work itself through the process.”

England said he supports both bills.

“My opinion is that it restores faith in the outcome of the cases,” England said. “There’s some belief there that some judges who are politically motivated and want to give the appearance that they’re tough on crime to help their chances at re-election. I think that this will restore public confidence in the process going forward.”

The House Judiciary Committee gave England’s bill a favorable report and it should be brought before the full House as soon as Tuesday.

“We obviously all have differences of opinion about how bills should be done, but at the end of the day I think the overriding concept in judicial override is that passing the bill ending that practice will be a good step forward.”

Brewbaker’s legislation now heads to the House. If it is passed, it would be sent to the Governor for his signature before becoming law.

 

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Ward Proposes Using Medicaid to Help Local Sheriffs

An Alabama senator wants the federal government to cover most of the cost of caring for jail inmates with mental illnesses.

Sen. Cam Ward, an Alabaster Republican, said Tuesday that counties currently pay for detainees’ psychiatric health care. He has introduced a bill that would shift 70 percent of those costs to the federal government under Medicaid.

The legislation would also allow county inmates to resume federal mental health care benefits immediately after release.

Right now, Medicaid coverage is terminated when a person enters a county jail. Ward says this creates a gap in coverage when inmates are discharged, causing those with mental illnesses to go weeks or months without medication.

The bill will move to the Judiciary Committee for a vote.

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Chilton County Career Tech Class Receives Grant

Clanton — Chilton County High School career preparedness students are getting an updated classroom thanks to Community Service Grant funding and State Senator Cam Ward.

Ward visited the school on Feb. 14 to meet the teachers receiving the funds. He said the Community Service Grant funds are available to legislators to help local school systems.

“I really like to do a lot geared to technology,” Ward said.

Teacher Kayla Cantley said she emailed Ward about the need for new computer tables in her classroom. Later, she was notified that $2,000 could be allocated to the project.

The tables will allow a better computer lab set up. Cantley said the tables the computers are on now are not sturdy. All of the tables face the walls making it difficult for the students to see the SmartBoard, an interactive board used to display computer programs.

“Right now if they want to see the SmartBoard, we all have to get up close to the door, and it’s just not really a good fit,” Cantley said.

As a part of the upgrade, the room layout will be rearranged, so that the SmartBoard and teaching area will not be near the door. The tables will all face the SmartBoard, making it easier for students to see.

Teacher Kelli Inman said the career preparedness course addresses the college application process, resume writing, job interviews and personal finance.

The teachers coordinate lessons, so that students in each class are learning the same thing each week.

Cantely and Inman said they were thankful for the funds and Ward making a personal visit to the school.

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Ward Passes Bill to Crack Down on Opioid & Fentanyl Trafficking

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Today the Senate Judiciary Committee gave favorable report to a bill that will dramatically strengthen penalties for the possession and trafficking of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, a substance that is about fifty times stronger than heroin.

Currently, the possession of fentanyl can only be charged as the unlawful possession of a controlled substance, a Class D felony for which the maximum prison sentence is two years.

“In Jefferson County alone, fentanyl deaths increased by 114% in a single year,” SB154’s sponsor, Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), said. “This is an unbelievably powerful drug and the illegal use and trafficking of Fentanyl are creating a public health and criminal justice crisis.”

Senate Bill 154 would make the possession of fentanyl or heroin a Class C felony, which carries a sentencing range of up to ten years in prison. The legislation is supported by new Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.

Used as a pain reliever for patients, fentanyl is among the most powerful opioids prescribed by medical providers. Its street form is uniquely dangerous since the drug can be absorbed via the skin or inhalation.

“District attorneys and law enforcement have fought the devastating effect of dangerous drugs on the citizens and communities of Alabama for decades,” said Barry Matson, Executive Director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association.

“We have seen addiction destroy lives and perhaps most devastatingly of all, addiction takes the hope of mothers and fathers and the God-given human potential for a life free from the pain that comes with debilitating addiction,” Matson continued. “This is legislation we have crafted with Sen. Ward and it is critically needed in the fight against criminal drug smugglers, distributers and traffickers who apply their deadly trade in Alabama.”

Ward’s proposal also increases the penalty for unlawful possession of heroin from a Class D to a Class C felony, and now heads on to the entire State Senate for consideration.

Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb, Chilton, Hale, and Jefferson Counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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Prison Fellowship Changes Lives

Life has its ups and downs.  Sometimes only when we get outside of our own little bubble and experience something different can we truly appreciate all the challenges the world can offer. If we choose to hide our faces from uncomfortable subjects, it can lead to a much more narrow view of the world.

As a member of the national Faith and Justice Fellowship of the Prison Fellowship, I recently attended our Board of Directors meeting in Washington, D.C.  This diverse group of United States Senators, Congressmen, Governors, and state legislators gathered to discuss new ideas about how to help bring more Christian-based principles into our criminal justice system. The meeting was timely, as it coincided with the annual National Day of Prayer.

When we think of fellowship and prayer, it often seems contradictory to the criminal justice system. Someone goes to prison because they did something wrong in the crime they committed. The Bible even says in Isaiah 61:8 that God loves justice. Punishment is at the very foundation of our system of justice in the United States.  Still, as I sat through this meeting, I could not help but think about the various parts of the Bible that admonish us to pray for everyone, even those who have gone down the wrong path in life. It is easy to pray for good people; however, it is a tougher soul searching experience to pray for those who have done terrible things in their lives.

In the United States today, 98% of those sentenced to prison eventually finish their terms and are released.  That equates to roughly 700,000 people a year who leave the system and return to society.  Thousands of Christian leaders throughout the nation visit prisons, talk with families, and comfort the victims of crimes. Listening to the stories that these leaders have shared with others, I am convinced that this compassion and fellowship has lifted the lives and outlook for many people who will have to move ahead despite their previous actions or experiences in life.

I applaud those who offer to bring light and hope to all of those who struggle in life. Both victims and offenders are children of God and those engaged in prison fellowship demonstrate this everyday. While the criminal justice system should be allowed to provide swift and certain justice, we should also continue to pray for all of our fellowmen. 

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Prison Construction Bill to Have Strong Debate

MARY SELL, DECATUR DAILY

MONTGOMERY — Alabama Speaker of the House Rep. Mac McCutcheon said he’s not sure where the 105-member chamber stands on Gov. Robert Bentley’s $800 million prison construction plan.

“It’s too early to say,” McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said after a Joint Legislative Prison Committee on Monday.

He said he expects a healthy discussion, including questions about how the massive contract would be awarded, what will happen to the state’s current prisons and where the new ones would be built.

McCutcheon said the location question is important to some lawmakers. It wasn’t answered last year when the prison plan died in the Legislature, he said.

“It will be an economic impact on some of those districts, and because of that, they want to take care of their districts,” McCutcheon said.

But Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said identifying where the four mega-prisons will be built could hurt the legislation’s chances of passage.

Lawmakers asked Monday what would become of the shuttered prisons and were told some communities have expressed interest in taking over at least some facilities.

One of the prisons that could be affected is the Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, which opened in 1984.

Last week, Bentley said more lawmakers were buying into his proposal to borrow the $800 million and pay back the loan with money saved by closing outdated, crowded and understaffed facilities. The bill is expected to be a priority in the session, which starts Tuesday.

McCutcheon said the legislation will be taken up early in the session but not rushed. He said he hasn’t decided how he will vote.

Bentley and the Department of Corrections have been working on data to prove the prisons are needed and that building four at once under one contract will save money.

DOC recently paid an engineering firm to conduct an architectural and engineering study on 17 prisons. The full report, said to be more than 1,000 pages, has not been made available. The department said a public records request would be needed to obtain it.

Information presented recently by DOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn states needed improvements to the state’s 17 existing prisons would cost more than $440 million.

Seven of the 17 prisons were recommended for closing, based on their age and extent of needed repairs.

Meanwhile, $109 million “could extend useful life” of three newer prisons, including Limestone Correctional Facility.

According to the DOC, the new prisons would save the following each year:

• $17 million in reduced staffing. The new facilities would allow for a 6 percent reduction in security staff and 19 percent reduction in support staff, including administration, food service, accounting and transportation.

• $21 million reduction of overtime. The department spends about $30 million in correctional officer overtime per year.

• $10 million in consolidation of health care delivery.

• $2 million in other consolidation of services, including food services and utilities.

Ward said another corrections-related bill coming up in the Legislature will have Medicaid pick up more medical costs of eligible inmates in county jails, including mental health treatment costs.

Currently, county jail inmate’s Medicaid care is terminated when they enter jail, and it takes about three months to reinstate coverage when they leave jail, Ward said.

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Sen Ward Speaks at Helena Kiwanis Club

By GRAHAM BROOKS / Staff Writer

HELENA–State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, took time out of his morning on Tuesday, Jan. 17, to address the Helena Kiwanis Club for nearly half an hour at the clubs’ weekly meeting to discuss a variety of political topics.

Ward pointed out that a number of years ago, the Helena Kiwanis Club was the first Kiwanis Club that Ward ever addressed and to this day, he comes back to speak to the club annually.

Kiwanis members enjoyed breakfast while listening to Ward address the club and answer questions.

Ward touched on the recent victory of Donald Trump in the election to become the 45th President of the United States.

“Republicans should be happy because they pulled an upset win in this last election,” Ward said. “I was not a Trump guy, I was a Rubio person in the primary but Republicans really pulled off one of the biggest upsets ever. Now the problem is, Republicans control it all so there’s no excuses. I think looking at Washington there’s a couple things I see coming out of Washington that’s different. There’s a lot of unknown. A lot of people don’t know the philosophy in which President Trump is going to go because he’s never cast a vote and he’s never had to make a public position on policies.”

Ward said that he didn’t think the uncertainty was a bad thing, citing Trump has a solid agenda and ideas and millions of Americans chose to vote for Trump because they wanted a change.

Ward will be attending Trump’s inauguration the week of Jan. 16 and said it is one of the most interesting things a person can attend and witness.

“I am going to the inauguration this week,” Ward said. “My wife has never been and I’m taking her. If you’ve never done it, that is one of the most interesting and fun historical things in the world. I might be one of the only people around here to go to both Democrat and Republican presidential inaugurations. I love the history of it and I love the ceremony.”

Aside from discussing Trump, Ward answered questions from Kiwanis members that included a question about the recent push for the lottery in the last legislative session.

“I was for the lottery and I caught a lot of heat for this,” Ward said. “I was for letting people vote on the lottery and I think people who were for the lottery made a hard, hard push this last session. It passed the Senate with one vote to spare and then went to the house and fell to pieces. Two things kill the lottery; one being everyone who says I’m for the lottery but I want it to go to this. You have all these people who are for the lottery but if it doesn’t go to their particular area like Medicaid or education it just falls apart. Two, casino gambling folks hate the lottery and they spend lots of money every year to feed the lottery.”

Ward is currently preparing for the Alabama Legislature’s next regular session on Feb. 7 in Montgomery.

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Alabama Correctional Officer Numbers Down 20%

MONTGOMERY ADVERTISER

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, saying it could "take days if not weeks" to identify the guilty parties, "if we did find out." Contraband in the prison, he said, "is out of control."

"We don’t have the officers to get the contraband," he said. "When we go into the blocks to search, we would be met with resistance from inmates.”

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.”

Hundreds gone

Many other corrections officers have also decided to step away. According to ADOC records, the number of COs 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.

Systemwide, 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. According to Dunn, about 100 officers graduated from their academy in 2016. “In years prior to that, that number was 200, 250,” he said. An academy class currently underway “only has roughly 25 officers in it, when the norm we would like to see is 70.”

“I think the public has become very aware of the conditions inside our facilities, and that gives people pause,” Dunn said. The decline in CO 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 prison last spring helped reduce monthly assaults down through September. Still, Charlotte Morrison, an attorney with the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, which has sued the state over prison conditions, said “knives are ubiquitous” at St. Clair.

“People go for hours without seeing a correctional officer,” she said. “We have staff report they have trouble seeing a correctional officer. This is a really dangerous environment.”

There’s broad agreement that the conditions of the prisons contribute to the decline. Low pay does as well: 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.

Truitt and Randall McGilberry, president of the Alabama Corrections Officer Association, which lobbies for corrections officers, agree that the conditions are a problem but also say that corrections officers are suffering from what they call a lack of leadership within the prison system.

“(COs) are leaving their chosen careers and making more money doing something else, and in a much safer situation,” McGilberry said. “It’s really the management. There’s just total incompetence in the management right now.”

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.

Populations decline; assaults don’t

The thinning CO ranks appear to be offsetting a notable decrease in the state’s inmate population. There were 23,328 prisoners in Alabama’s correctional facilities in September, a drop of about 3.6 percent over the previous year.

Overcrowding still remains high. Alabama's prisons were built to hold 13,318 inmates, and the drop brought the system’s total capacity down from 181 percent to 175 percent – an improvement, but still among the highest in the nation, and one that has brought lawsuits that could force many remedies, including new construction or the release of inmates. But the fall continues a slow but steady trend: Over the last five years, the total population in state prisons has fallen by 2,000 inmates.

Officials attribute this year’s decline to reforms to presumptive sentencing guidelinesapproved in 2013, and the 2015 prison bill, which reclassified some offenses and made new investments in parole and probation with a goal of reducing recidivism.

“We anticipate over the next three to four years, we’ll see upwards of maybe a 6, 8, or 10 percent decrease in our inmate population,” Dunn said. “That’s not to say that we don’t think we ought to continue to work for criminal justice reform and sentencing reform. We think there’s still areas that need to be discussed. But these are encouraging signs.”

The drop has in some cases allowed the department to redeploy staffers. At Holman, where overcrowding fell from 140 percent to 134 percent between September 2015 and September 2016, the department combined two small facilities at the prison, allowing them to “shift a significant portion of that staff into Holman,” according to Dunn.

But the loss of corrections officers has driven inmate-to-CO 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 McGilberry. “If something did break out, a lot of guys would be so fatigued they wouldn’t be able to respond properly.”

In an email, Bob Horton, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections, said some officers at St. Clair had expressed concerns with equipment issues. "In the past 12 months, the warden has taken steps to ensure each officer is properly equipped and a sufficient supply of required security items are on-hand and accessible for each shift," Horton wrote.

Fewer officers also mean fewer disciplinary write-ups; the system saw year-to-date disciplinary write-ups fall 10 percent from September 2015 to September 2016, with major disciplinaries down 11 percent as assaults climbed.

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 don’t 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.”

Intervention

St. Clair Correctional Facility often acts as a convex lens for the problems plaguing Alabama's prison system. Six inmates were killed in the facility between 2011 and 2014, and a riot erupted at the prison in 2015 that left a correctional officer and 15 inmates injured. An inmate stabbed a correctional officer in the prison last March.

Wynn said inmates could “sleep where you wanted to sleep” and said “police feared for their lives, feared for their safety.”

“Everybody was living in a world without police,” he said. “Imagine living in a world without police officers.”

The problems were attributed in part to a lack of working locks in the prison. ADOC is conducting a replacement of doors and locks at St. Clair that Dunn says will be complete in February. Truitt alleged that inmates at St. Clair have sabotaged some of the new locks and doors; Horton said in an email there were "no reports of significant issues" with the new locks.

The attack on the officer, combined with rising violence in the prison, led the ADOC to deploy its Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT) to St. Clair; recruit volunteers from other prisons to work in the facility and hire new staff to work control cubicles. Unlike officers, those new staffers do not have Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training (APOST) certification, but their presence “allows additional bodies on the floor,” Dunn said

The department also capped the number of inmates in the facility and began transferring inmates out of St. Clair and to other close security prisons.

As a result, St. Clair finds itself an unusual situation for an Alabama state prison: It operated below its designed capacity from July through September. And those moves seem to have had an effect: Monthly assault numbers fell from a high of 33 in May to 17 in September.

Dunn, however, said the St. Clair intervention was only a temporary solution.

“This is very much robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “The additional augmentation staff has to come from somewhere. That’s not a long-term strategy for success.”

Truitt said the CERT officers helped for a time.

“Inmates saw the CERT team, the riot team and thought ‘Hey, we better behave’ because they had special equipment to handle it,” he said. But he said the CERT team was most effective at night and that “most illegal acts took place during the day.”

Morrison said St. Clair is “still in an emergency situation.”

“Staff and inmates, the men there are afraid,” she said.

Construction

The department has increased its budget for recruiting and hopes a pay raise for COs will help. But Dunn and Bentley will also press forward with their prison construction proposal. Bentley said recently he may call a special session within the 2017 regular session of the Legislature, which starts in February, to address the issue.

Dunn said the proposal will resemble what the department proposed last year. It will include three 4,000-bed men’s prisons – which, he said, will contain smaller facilities holding about 500 inmates each, with all sharing services for food, clothing, laundry and medical care.

Corrections experts, noting that recent trends in prison construction emphasize smaller facilities, questioned the scale of what the department proposed last year. The plan foundered amid questions over the $800 million cost and the method of bidding proposed.

Dunn said the plan embraces a small approach in a larger context, and acknowledges the “fiscal reality” that building six separate facilities as opposed to one larger one might be more expensive.

“We’re going to be able to provide security and safety in a much better environment than we have now for staff, our correctional officers and inmates,” he said. “We’re going to be able to provide dramatically increased rehabilitation treatments, education, all those things as a department we want to do that promotes public safety, that increases inmates’ ability to be successful when they get out.”

Ward said there will be a strong push for the construction proposal, in part because of lawsuits over medical and mental health care of inmates in Alabama’s prisons.

“We’re working the votes pretty hard on it,” he said. “We’re going to pass some sort of construction bill, mainly because we’re under the gun from the federal court.”

Others are not so sure new prisons are the right answer, saying without proper leadership and a commitment to rehabilitative programming, the prisons’ problems will persist. The state built St. Clair, which opened in 1983, in response to the state’s prison crisis of the 1970s, which led to a federal takeover. Within a few years, Morrison said, “the facility was in disrepair.”

“Any prison, no matter how new it is, how sophisticated, the security mechanisms can fail,” she said. “We need real professional leadership and culture in place for any prison to operate.”

The department has not said where new prisons might go. Truitt said many officers he knew would be reluctant to travel to work at a new prison.

“The camps will be understaffed when they start, or they’re going to have non-experienced officers working them,” he said.

But Dunn says that when he presents his construction proposal to corrections officers, he gets a positive response.

“When we explain this vision to them, it’s something they can buy into and see would be very beneficial to their role as a corrections officer, to their ability to do their job, to the security, safety, the whole gambit,” he said.

The future

Everyone agrees getting more corrections officers in the prisons – wherever they may be – will require improving the working environment.

“(Corrections officers) just want safety and money,” said McGilberry. “And they’re not getting either.”

Getting overcrowding under control would be a big part of that, and Dunn said “we’re not going to stop until we get numbers to 100 percent capacity.” But, he said, even with new prisons, that would “only be a start” toward addressing the problems.

“This is a long time in coming and it’s going to take a long, concerted effort to address all the associated issues,” he said.

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.

Increasing pay; changing leadership; limiting overtime and improving benefits, he said, would allow officers to stay on the job. 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.

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