Alabama Department of Corrections continues to struggle to recruit staff

By: - February 7, 2023 2:00 am
An officer with a pair of handcuffs.

An officer is seen in the yard of Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama on Oct. 22, 2019. (File)

The Department of Corrections continues to struggle with staffing despite court orders to hire additional correctional officers. 

In September, DOC had 1,810 staff in correctional facilities, according to its most recent quarterly report.  In September 2021, it had 2,225.  The agency recruited 221 officers during that time but lost 636 officers.

Corrections was told to hire additional corrections officers after a federal judge ruled in 2017 that DOCviolated inmates’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment by not providing adequate mental health care services to those who needed it.

However, instead of increasing its staff numbers, the trend is going in the reverse direction. 

“Since 2017 when that order came out, the Department of Corrections has lost more officers,” said Latasha McCrary, senior staff attorney for criminal justice reform with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Instead of having the low numbers that they already had, they have even lower numbers.”

A message seeking comment was sent to DOC on Monday. 

The court ordered the department to implement measures to increase the number of corrections officers working within the prisons, including a staffing analysis for its facilities and the creation of a unit to write policy and enforce the court’s staffing order.

The order set staffing benchmarks and directed the department to fill “all the mandatory and essential posts at the level indicated in the most recent staffing analysis at the time.”

DOC has objected to the benchmarks. In a court filing last month, the department said hitting the benchmarks depended on everything from having adequate funding from the Legislature to the state of the economy to the availability of affordable housing near the state’s correctional facilities. 

“Submitting ‘realistic benchmarks’ requires ADOC to speculate on future events out of its control that will influence the Department’s ability to meet these marks,” attorneys for the department wrote. “The multitude of known and unknown circumstances that may influence ADOC’s ability to recruit and retain personnel makes setting benchmarks practically impossible.”

Plaintiffs suing the department over conditions in the state prisons said in response that DOC had fallen short of recommended pay levels for staff and had turned its focus on two new men’s prisons under construction in Elmore and Escambia counties. DOC has argued those facilities will require fewer staff to operate. But the plaintiffs said the department needed to focus on immediate needs. 

“Today, ADOC has far fewer correctional officers than at either previous period, or for that matter at any period for which data is readily available,” the brief said. “A review of ADOC Monthly Statistical Reports as far back as January 2000 showed no period in which correctional officer staffing was as low as it is now.”

The shortage of correctional officers is a significant factor in a tide of violence within state prisons. The federal Department of Justice sued the state in 2020 over the violence, alleging that it violated prisoners’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. 

Prison departments around the nation struggle to recruit and retain staff.  

“States in the United States are trying to raise correctional officers’ salaries and boosting recruitment messaging to fill all of the missing jobs in the correction facilities, but until they address the overcrowding and staffing shortages, all of the issues are going remain and retention is going to be the real problem,” said Natalie Todak, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Many of the issues in the state prisons could be addressed by recruiting more officers, but the turnover is high because there are not enough officers who are already working. 

“As a state, when we make a choice to incarcerate people, that is a responsibility we take on as a state,” McCrary said. “Part of that responsibility is ensuring we can actually meet the requirements of the constitution when we decide to house and imprison people. If we cannot do that, then we have to consider what needs to be done to make sure that we reach prison population levels that allow us to provide constitutional care.”


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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.