An inmate in the custody of the Department of Corrections.
Lawmakers Thursday expressed concerns about the cost of litigation involving the Alabama Department of Corrections.
DOC made up 31 of the 43 legal services agreements listed on Thursday’s Contract Review Committee agenda. Those contracts amounted to almost $16 million, or about 88% of the total $18.2 million that were awarded to vendors by different state agencies. Bill Lunsford, an attorney with Butler Snow in Montgomery, received DOC contracts worth $14.9 million in the docket.
“A lot of these cases, damages and systemic appropriation cases, have overlapping fact patterns, overlapping claims,” said Mandy Speirs, assistant general counsel for the Alabama Department of Corrections. “If we parcel it out to different attorneys for each one, we would have duplicative efforts and cost the state more money because we are having to do the same depositions twice, the same litigation twice, because we would have different attorneys.”
The committee approved the contracts. But Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said the ongoing – and increasing – costs of DOC litigation concerned him.
“Lunsford is basically a government agency at this point,” he said.
Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, the chair of the committee, said in an interview after the meeting that the legal contracts are effectively continuations of existing contracts.
“The lead attorney changed firms,” he said. “We discussed multiple ways to handle some of these, and we decided to handle it by bringing them back as new contracts — it made sense, so we have done that.”
Katherine Robertson, chief counsel for the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, which recently took over some of DOC’s litigation, read back to the committee the inception years of the contracts brought before the committee. Many were from 2020 but some dated as far back as 2019 and as recently as 2021.
That, however, did little to assuage the concerns of lawmakers at the meeting about the size and scope of the contracts going to a single firm.
“That is a lot of cases,” said Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore. “Is one individual able to handle all those cases and how much do all those cases total out to be?”
“I think there was a time period in 2019, 2020, 2021, when there was a strategy perhaps to keep some of this work with the same law firm that was handling the three big cases,” Robertson said. “I have not seen any new requests of that nature with the same firm. So, that is perhaps something we are getting away from.”
Corrections has been mired in legal proceedings for the past several years over violence in the facilities and allegations of poor medical and mental health treatment. The U.S. Department of Justice sued DOC in 2020, alleging conditions in the state’s men’s prisons constituted a violation of inmates’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Lunsford is being paid $9.9 million to defend the state in the federal lawsuit.
Another 16 contracts each worth $200,000 involve lawsuits over mental health services.
Lawmakers on the committee asked Speirs about bringing some of the representation within the agency instead of contracting out the services.
“Moving forward, is it the Department’s intention, with the Attorney General’s Office, to try to handle as much of this litigation in-house to try and reduce some of these costs?” asked Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope during the meeting.
Speirs said there are two categories of cases that are ongoing with Corrections: damages and injunctive relief.
“The Attorney General’s Office, in April, pulled all the assistant attorney general designations for the six attorneys at the Department of Corrections,” Speirs said. “Therefore, the Department of Corrections attorneys can no longer represent the Department of Corrections, so we are no longer able to bring any of them in house, so the Attorney General’s Office had to assume those.”
The four ongoing injunctive cases are represented by Lunsford’s firm.
She added that Lunsford is an expert with respect to the type of litigation involving Corrections, and that the agency is “lucky to have him.”
“The Attorney General’s Office has prohibited us from setting this case multiple times,” Speirs said of one of Lunsford’s cases.
Corrections has also faced staffing issues. England asked if the department had been able to hire additional officers.
“Our recruiting class that we are starting this fall is one of our largest that we have ever had,” Speirs said.
Roberts said that the labor numbers that came out just that day, with about 200,000 new jobs, is an example of the headwinds that Corrections is facing with respect to hiring. He also said he hoped the litigation would be resolved.
“My hope is that it ends,” he said. “My earnest hope is that it will end.”
England said that creating change to satisfy that injunctive relief will cost money, adding that it is part of a more systemic problem of the system.
“We are so far behind in facilities, medical care, employees, Corrections officers,” England said. “The more and more you see his name, it is never going to stop.”
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