Alabama’s new prison chief has been on the job less than two months, but he says it’s clear that overcrowding is the overall problem that covers many of the systems other challenges: security risks, staffing levels, officer turnover and culture.
“It is readily acknowledged for almost two decades the state has struggled to adequately resource the prison system,” Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said.
“When you should have 10 officers for a particular area or function, and you only have six or you only have five then it’s obvious to be at least those five officers are having to do the work of 10 … It raises our security risk,” Dunn said.
Dunn in April took the helm of a prison system with well-documented troubles. State prisons in January housed 25,102 inmates in facilities designed to hold 13,318, putting the system at 188 percent capacity. The crowding level has contributed to risky conditions for those on both sides of the prison bars.
“We have significant resource challenges and they are chronic. They are not recent. In large institutions that have been chronically under-resourced, that results in security issues, personnel issues, facility maintenance issue and it also results in cultural issues,” Dunn said.
The new head of the state prison system does not have a background in running state prisons. And that is by design.
Dunn, a native of Alabama, retired as a colonel from the Air Force in March after a 28-year career. His most recent command was of the Thomas Barnes Center for Enlisted Education at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. He also served as vice commander of the 14th Flying Training Wing at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi and as deputy director for combating terrorism and support activities for the office of the Secretary of Defense.
Gov. Robert Bentley, when he swore in Dunn, said he was specifically looking for someone from the outside to make changes in a system, where critics have accused the state of letting problems and problem personnel linger.
Dunn said he has experience with “large complex organizations” where problems and decisions are rarely simple.
Dunn’s challenge is getting up to speed on how corrections operates. He has spent the last six weeks studying the system. He said his top task this summer is to spend time on the ground in the prisons. He spends a lot of time asking,” Why do we do it that way?” and asking staff what they need to do their jobs better.
“I think the vast majority of the men and women in this department are professional, faithful public servants who want to do the right thing and want to serve the state in an honorable and faithful manner. I believe that. I do believe, just like any large institution, we have some folks aren’t on board with that and we’re going to address that.”
Two state prisons in particular have been in the spotlight.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday announced a settlement agreement with the state over conditions at Tutwiler Prison for Women where federal officials say inmates were subjected to an unconstitutional climate of constant sexual abuse and harassment.
Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, said the while the state has focused on improving Tutwiler, conditions at other state prisons have gotten “dramatically worse” over the last 18 months Stevenson’s organization initially raised the alarm about Tutwiler and has sued the state over violence at another prison.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.