Numbers game: ADOC seeks officers

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 9, 2006

DEMOPOLIS – Richard Allen understands that most of what is spread about his department highlights the negative aspects of the Alabama prison system. That makes one of his top goals a little more difficult to achieve.

“In some instances, we have one guard looking after 240 felons,” the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections told the Demopolis Rotary Club on Wednesday. “The shortage of guards is a real problem, and it is something I’m committed to fixing.”

Allen has already taken steps, such as partnering with U.S. Army and National Guard recruiters.

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“When I was thinking about how to crack this problem, I thought about the Army and the Guard. They have the best recruiters. They know how to get this done. It’s not something we could ever match,” Allen said.

Now, when National Guard recruiters in Alabama are pitching a part-time gig with the Reserves, they are also pitching the benefits of a full-time gig with ADOC.

But Allen readily admits his job is hampered in part by the fact that ADOC law enforcement positions are not on par with other law enforcement agencies.

“A starting salary with the highway patrol is about $31,000,” Allen said. “Our guards start at $25,000.”

ADOC is expected to ask for a $10 million increase in appropriations next year. Most of that increase will go to fund a 10-percent pay increase for department staff.

Allen said he loses a lot of guards to the Alabama Highway Patrol, local police and sheriff departments and other agencies such as the U.S. Park Service. These agencies also boast better working conditions and fewer hours.

According to statistics released by ADOC, the department is running at 22 percent fewer personnel than authorized, which works out to be approximately 496 correctional officers they need to hire. The ratio of officers to inmates is 1:10, whereas surrounding areas is 1:6.

The biggest problem with the officer shortage is that it is only getting worse. Allen said ADOC is losing approximately 30 correctional officers a month. The first quarter statistics are more encouraging, though ADOC still reported a net loss of 61 officers.

“We can train 450 new officers through out training camp a year,” Allen said,” but we’re not doing it. Our last class, we only graduated 29. In this next class, we’ll graduate 45.”

Officer shortage is not the only problem facing ADOC. Allen said a task force set up by Gov. Bob Riley identified four major areas of concern: staffing shortage, overcrowding, increased health care costs and poorly maintained facilities.

Allen proposed a comprehensive plan in March that outlined ways to address all four problem areas. Included in the plan was building an in-patient medical facility to cut down on hospital charges, encourage the implementation of community correction plans to cut down on incarceration numbers and hiring a contractor to look at maintenance needs for the entire ADOC system.

“Some of this is outside our control,” Allen said. “But I’m committed to working with whoever I have to to make sure we fix these problems.”