Alabama prison staff shortage gets worse in spite of court order to hire more

Published 4:18 pm Saturday, February 11, 2023

A federal judge said Friday Alabama prisons remain critically understaffed, with court filings showing the number of officers in state lockups has continued to drop despite a court order to increase numbers.

The prison system has lost more than 500 security staff employees over the last 18 months, according to court filings.

“We had horrendous understaffing in this department and something has to be done,” U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said during a status conference in the long-running lawsuit over prison health care.

In 2017, Thompson found that mental health care in Alabama prisons is so inadequate that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. He said understaffing is one of the root issues and ordered the state to increase the number of corrections officers.

William Van Der Pol, a lawyer representing inmates in the lawsuit, told Thompson that Alabama has fewer correctional officers than when the litigation began or at any point where they could find comparative numbers.

The state has used pay raises and recruitment efforts to boost officer numbers, but has been hindered by a tight labor market, Bill Lunsford, a lawyer for the state argued.

Thompson asked the two sides to compare current staffing levels to what they were in 2014 when the case was filed.

Van Der Pol, an attorney with the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, told Thompson that based on available numbers the prison system is at its “lowest number in history” for officers working at major facilities.

“It has kind of fallen off a cliff for lack of a better word. It has dropped from 1,800 officers down to a little over 1,300 in the last year-and-a-half … They are a lower number today than they have ever been,” Van Der Pol said.

Lunsford said the state did not dispute the numbers but called it a misleading “soundbite.”

He said the tight labor market has many industries searching for workers and that that is a “difficult headwind” for the state’s effort to hire and retain staff. Increasing staffing has been a priority for the department, said Lunsford.

Between 2019 and 2021, the state added more than 1,000 security staffers through recruitment and retention efforts that included pay raises and bonuses, according to Lunsford.

“This is not a story of total failure. There have been successes,” he said.

Thompson said blaming the low unemployment rate was an excuse and suggested that the department may need to again raise the salaries of correctional officers to recruit the needed workers.

Lawyers for Alabama wrote in a court filing that prisons had the equivalent of 1,392 correctional staff members on Sept. 30, 2022, after losing 528 correctional staff since April 1, 2021.

On March 31, 2021, they had 1,920 staff members, according to earlier reports filed by the prison system. The numbers included dozens of cubicle operators, who are responsible for door controls, but are not certified officers. Lawyers for inmates argued cubicle operators should not count in total security staffing numbers.

While lawyers for inmates argued the current staffing numbers are a record low, state attorneys argued in a court filing that it is difficult to compare 2022 and 2017 numbers because of changes in prison operations.