Alabama Commissioner Lays Out How State Plans To Curb Violence In Prisons

Jun 11, 2019
Originally published on June 12, 2019 9:10 am

Facing the threat of a federal lawsuit, Alabama's Department of Corrections has unveiled a three-year plan to address its shortcomings and improve conditions for inmates and staff.

This comes after the U.S. Department of Justice put Alabama on notice for the unsafe and unconstitutional conditions in its men's prisons. The Justice Department concluded after its investigation that "an excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse and prisoner deaths occur within Alabama's prisons on a regular basis." Between 2015 and 2017, there were 22 homicides.

Overcrowding and understaffing were also highlighted as contributing factors to the overall systemic failures.

Commissioner Jeff Dunn, the head of Alabama's prison system, says the four strategic areas of change for the correctional system are staffing, infrastructure, programming and culture.

"The dramatic overcrowding that we've seen, coupled with the understaffing has created an environment in which our violence rates are too high, and we at times struggled to provide the safety and the security that we expect," Dunn says. "We're addressing that in our strategic plan, particularly with our hiring initiatives."

The department's plan calls for building more prisons to reduce overcrowding, providing leadership training to senior prison staff, hiring more officers and paying them more.

Work to increase staffing at the prisons began when the Alabama legislature approved a budget on April 9 that included a $40 million increase for the prison system. Gov. Kay Ivey had requested the increase before the DOJ notice came out earlier in the month, according to Al.com.

Of the $40 million, $30 million has been earmarked for hiring 500 additional correctional officers and, according to Al.com, funding a 20% pay increase.

The plan also includes a proposal to build up and increase the number of rehabilitative programs — such as educational and technical training, treatment services and life-skills training.

That's a significant issue for David Crenshaw, an Alabama inmate who's been in prison for 26 years.

Crenshaw thinks one reason the prisons have grown so violent is that programs like work crews, recreational sports and mental health classes have been cut.

"[Prisoners] have basically nothing to do, just sitting around with idle time on their hands," he says. And that, he says, can lead to depression. "When the depression sets in, it always comes out with a violent outcome it seems like."

Dunn, a former U.S. Air Force colonel, took office in April 2015. He spoke with All Things Considered about the department's plan for reform.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On cuts to rehabilitative programming

I think, unfortunately, it's directly linked back to our ability to staff our facilities, because any of the rehabilitative programs that we provide require staff, and we simply have not been able in the last many years to staff these facilities to the levels that we need.

I think the other piece of that is that we have not had the capacity, with respect on the infrastructure side, to have the classrooms that we need, the technology that we need, things like this, to give inmates productive things to do with their time. Our infrastructure simply does not provide for that right now.

On how management culture and staff contribute to violence, drugs

Certainly we recognize that we have, on the negative side, issues. That's why we initiated several years ago a corruption task force that has as its primary mission to find and investigate and, where indicated, to prosecute staff that are not abiding by our values and sometimes actually breaking the law. We initiated an inspector general process by which we inspect our facilities and one of the things that that process looks at is the culture inside the facility.

On the state's past decision to keep wardens who were under scrutiny for violence in their prisons

Well, I can't speak to those decisions [which took place before Dunn became commissioner]. ... I'm not disagreeing with you that they're still working, but I am suggesting that we are instituting new standards for our wardens and if you look, several of those wardens are no longer with us. This is a problem, overall with the department, that's been in the making for over 30 years, and we are, what we believe to be, taking some very actionable steps towards addressing the problem, and as we get resources applied, then it'll increase the speed and intensity with which we can address those problems. And we're attacking them on all fronts.

On whether Alabama's prison system is too far gone to fix

No. I don't believe that. I think that we have a leadership team right now that is experienced. ... I would not be as committed and continue to serve in this capacity if I felt like it was too far gone. I think we have an actionable road map that we can use. We've got support from the legislature. We certainly have support from the executive branch. So all of these partners have come to the table to say, "This is something that if we work hard and roll up our sleeves, we can actually make a positive difference and reform and transform this department."

Connor Donevan and Emily Kopp produced and edited the audio interview. Wynne Davis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Yesterday, we heard from an inmate in Alabama named David Crenshaw. He's been in prison for 26 years. He told us, in all those years, inmates never felt as unsafe as they do now.

DAVID CRENSHAW: We never just felt like our life being in danger the way it is today. Basically, everybody incarcerated feels in danger.

CORNISH: It's not just feeling in danger. Between 2015 and 2017, there were nearly two dozen homicides in Alabama's prisons. That's according to the U.S. Justice Department. It issued a report this year that found understaffed prisons rife with drugs, weapons and violence. Facing the threat of a federal lawsuit, the Alabama Department of Corrections released a plan it says will turn things around.

JEFF DUNN: Our goal here is for this to be an Alabama solution to this problem.

CORNISH: That's Commissioner Jeff Dunn. He's head of Alabama's prison system. Dunn's strategic plan calls for building more prisons to reduce overcrowding, providing leadership training to senior prison staff, hiring more officers and paying them more.

The plan also includes a proposal to introduce rehabilitative programs for inmates. That's something David Crenshaw, the inmate, says used to exist. He thinks one reason why the prisons have grown so violent is that programs like work crews, recreational sports and mental health classes have been cut. We played some of his interview for Jeff Dunn.

CRENSHAW: Today, it's no meaningful outlet in here. It's just like these guys being thrown up in here. They have, basically, nothing to do, just sitting awhile with idle time on their hands. And of course, you know, the person fitting in and whether the person's fitting in - and it always come out with a violent outcome, seems like.

CORNISH: Commissioner Dunn, can you talk about this idea of what's happened to rehabilitative programming?

DUNN: Well, I think, unfortunately, it's directly linked back to our ability to staff our facilities because any of the rehabilitative programs that we provide require staff. And we simply have not been able, in the last many years, to staff these facilities to the levels that we need.

I think the other piece of that is that we have not had the capacity, with respect on the infrastructure side, to have the classrooms that we need, the technology that we need, things like this to give inmates productive things to do with their time. Our infrastructure simply does not provide for that right now.

CORNISH: I want to turn to another section of your report - culture. And the inmate we spoke with said he viewed officers - corrections officers as operating as though they're just another gang in prison. And this tracks with some of the findings in the DOJ report. It found that the Department of Corrections employees were a main source of drugs in prisons. How are you going to address this?

DUNN: Certainly, we recognize that we have, on the negative side, issues. That's why we initiated, several years ago, a corruption task force that has, as its primary mission, to find and investigate. And we're indicated to prosecute staff that are not abiding by our values and sometimes actually breaking the law. We initiated an inspector general process by which we inspect our facilities. And one of the things that that process looks at is the culture inside the facility.

CORNISH: But can I just ask - you know, back in 2015, there were some 10 prison wardens who were reassigned, people who had been under scrutiny for violent conditions. They were just sent to other prisons. This was just before you took over. Was that a mistake by the state, and what are you going to do differently this time around?

DUNN: Well, I can't speak to those decisions. I'm familiar with...

CORNISH: But these - means these wardens were still working in the system, right? I mean, even if you didn't make the decision to reassign, they're still working.

DUNN: Right, and I don't - I'm not disagreeing with you that they're still working, but I am suggesting that we are instituting new standards for our wardens. And if you look, several of those wardens are no longer with us. This is a problem that - overall with the department that's been in the making for over 30 years. And we are what we believe to be taking some very actionable steps towards addressing the problem. And as we get resources applied, then it'll increase the speed and intensity with which we can address those problems. And we're attacking them on all fronts.

CORNISH: Commissioner Dunn, you are a former Air Force colonel. You know a thing or two about working within an institution. Is the culture of the Alabama prison system too far gone to fix?

DUNN: No. I don't believe that. I think that we have a leadership team right now that's been assembled that is experienced.

CORNISH: But you came into office after a commissioner had to resign because of a federal investigation. And here you are again, right? Only now, it's under your tenure.

DUNN: Well, I - just to your point of this - whether it's too far gone - no. I would not be as committed and continue to serve in this capacity if I felt like it was too far gone. I think we have an actionable road map that we can use. We've got support from the legislature. We certainly have support from the executive branch. So all of these partners have come to the table to say, this is something that, if we work hard and roll up our sleeves, we can actually make a positive difference and reform and transform this department.

CORNISH: Commissioner Jeff Dunn, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DUNN: Thank you, Audie. It was a pleasure to be with you.

CORNISH: Jeff Dunn, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections. He was talking about the department's new plan to curb violence in the state's prisons. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.