Correction officers say state system is ‘time bomb’

Published 1:03 pm Monday, February 2, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Corrections officers say the inmate-to-guard ratio in Alabama’s prisons is double the national average of 5:1 — and that’s on a good day.

“In many cases and during many shifts the ratio is 200 to 1 or more,” Capt. Lloyd Wallace, a correctional officer at Limestone prison, said Monday. “Let me say that again: 200 to 1 or more.”

Wallace, president of the Alabama Correctional Organization, spoke at a news conference the group held to talk about what it says is the “time bomb” called Alabama’s prison system. The ACO leaders proposed various tax and revenue-raising measures that would provide about $47 million in new funds to hire more officers and increase their pay.

“This is something we can’t take lightly,” said Wallace, who has worked in corrections for 23 years. “To do so would be the equivalent of disregarding the alarm system at your home when it is going off.”

He said incidents involving disciplinary action have increased by 70 percent since 2006.

Overcrowding has been a problem in the prison system for decades, with facilities designed to hold 13,403 inmates now housing more than 25,200.

Prisons commissioner Richard Allen said he made many of the same points when he spoke to legislators at the 2009-2010 budget hearings last month and marvels there hasn’t been a prison riot since 1985’s uprising at the St. Clair Correctional Facility.

“It’s a challenge every year to try to keep the department running on an even keel and make some things happen but we do it,” Allen said Monday. “I can understand why the officers are frustrated because I know the situation they’re in.”

Alabama is among the nation’s lowest in starting salaries for correctional officers, which is just over $29,000.

“Corrections is a training ground for all the other agencies, that’s the bottom line,” Sgt. Kenneth Pierce said. “Our officers are doing a fine job, we just need to continue to recruit.”

Required overtime has become a norm, the ACO members said. Sgt. Terry Raybon, who works at the Birmingham Work Release Center, said some officers have worked as many as 88 hours in what is supposed to be a 40-hour week.

The ACO suggested removing sales tax exemptions on the trade-in value for cars, taking away sales tax credits to banks, increasing the lodgings tax by 2 percent and repealing insurance premium tax credits. They said the measures would raise about $47 million.

But Senate budget committee Chairman Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said their chances of passage are “pretty slim.”

“Families are hurting in this tough economic environment and the only positive thing going on is the price of gas has gone down,” he said. “Hopefully the federal stimulus package will ease the burden that’s hitting Alabama and our country.”

ACO members say they are realistic but hopeful changes will be made soon and the Legislature will give their proposals a fair shot.

“We met with some legislators last year but no action was taken,” Raybon said. “But we’ll keep fighting — they should know that.”