Ask anyone with insight into the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), and they'll tell you it is understaffed.

That was the takeaway point from a briefing of the Alabama Legislature's Budget Committees on Thursday. New ADOC Commissioner John Hamm told the legislators that not only is ADOC struggling to hire security officers, but they are short of drug treatment counselors, stewards and administrative staff.

Hamm took over the struggling state prison system after the departure of then-ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn in December. Hamm said that ADOC was struggling to implement its employee growth plan.

"We are looking at every possible way to attract candidates to the Department of Corrections," Hamm outlined. "I am not just talking about the security staff."

Hamm added that ADOC currently only had 1,879 security personnel. There are 541 vacant positions. Of the administrative staff, ADOC has 1,163 employees and 261 vacant posts.

The personnel department, tasked with hiring and retaining staff, only has 12 employees with vacancies there, too.

The accounting department has as many vacancies as employees, and the ADOC has just 59 substance abuse counselors and 42 vacancies.

State Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) chairs the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee.

"We are under a court order to hire 2,000 new guards, and we have a little over 1,900 today," Albritton said. "We are moving in the wrong direction. It is actually worse this year."

"All of my colleagues are having the same problem," Hamm responded. "We have got to figure out how to get people to come in and become a correctional officer."

State Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), chairman of the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee, said that as a legislator, many constituents come to him seeking help getting state jobs and contracts.

"Everyone wants to be a Game Warden, but in 28 years, I have never had someone call me and ask for help to get a Department of Corrections job," Clouse said.

"What we are doing is not working," Hamm lamented. "I am open to suggestions – anything."

Hamm said that the ADOC uses social media, broadcast media, radio, billboards, word of mouth, "and we also have recruiting events."

"We have retained a company called Horizon Point for recruiting," Hamm explained.

Hamm said attitudes toward ADOC jobs have changed.

"When I first came to work for the state, you posted a job description, and hundreds of people came in to apply for it," Hamm said. "It is not that way anymore.

"We have also retained a company called Ripplework, an Alabama-based company, for the wellness program that they have. We have to not only recruit employees but make sure that we retain the employees that we have. They have been on for about a month."

Hamm explained that the starting salary for a corrections security officer is $33,000. The scale tops out at around $56,000. If they start at age 21, under Tier II retirement, they can retire at 56 years old after a 35-year career.

"We are competing with other law enforcement agencies in the state," for hires Hamm told the legislators. "Most of those departments start out at the mid-forties [in salary]. They skip over us and go to work for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department, the Troy Police Department, etc."

State Rep. Rex Reynolds (R-Huntsville) is a retired Huntsville Police chief.

"Your starting pay is $33,000," Reynolds said. "Law enforcement is $42,000, and it is going up. I just googled it, and it is near $50,000. It is real hard to compete with that."

"I have heard other department heads, and they are having similar issues," Hamm outlined. "We have got to be more nimble."

Hamm said ADOC's $9 million hiring and retention bonus program was set to expire on December 31.

"We will be coming to you with some changes for this and seeking to extend this past the December 31, 2022 deadline," Hamm advised.

"It seems like the bonuses are either not working or are misapplied," Albritton replied. "Let's have a plan that will actually work. Not only do we have $9 million, but we are spending millions on overtime."

"We have a significant overtime budget for correctional officers," Hamm stated. "We do have mandated overtime assignments for correctional officers."

"They are not going to work over 16 hours" in a day, Hamm assured legislators.

"They are certainly being overloaded, and that is taking a physical and mental toll on them," Reynolds said.

State Rep. Paul Lee (R-Dothan) stated, "We are trying to make sure that we meet all the needs that the officers need."

Hamm said that ADOC had recruited a number of retired state workers.

"We have a little over 300 retired state employees working for us," Hamm advised. "They are vital to our operations."

Hamm suggested that ADOC begin hiring part-time workers.

"The ones that are out there looking [for a job], they might not want a full-time job," Hamm explained. "We may be able to draw some of those people back into the workforce."

Hamm said that the Department had done the land clearing and site prep work on the new mega-prison in Elmore County and was working on the concrete pad, and had begun work on the new mega-prison in Escambia County. The Elmore County mega-prison will open in January 2026.

"It is going to be a monumental task to transfer inmates into this new facility and also the one in Escambia," Hamm said. "You just don't move 4,000 prisoners. We have already begun planning."

"I do think the new facilities will help us to recruit," Reynolds said.

"Our number one source of new employees is word of mouth from our current employees," Hamm said. "Our personnel shortage impacts that."

Hamm said that 75% of ADOC's budget is spent on employee pay, benefits, legal and medical costs.

The Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a suit against ADOC on behalf of current and former inmates. That lawsuit is in Judge Myron Thompson's courtroom. The Department of Justice has also sued the state, arguing that the inhumane conditions and violence in ADOC's facilities make incarceration in Alabama a "cruel and unusual punishment" that is banned under the U.S. Constitution.

"You have been very supportive of the office of Corrections and the litigation that we are trying to deal with," Hamm said.

Hamm added that the prison population had been steadily increasing since the Department lifted COVID-19 restrictions that left many prisoners in county jails.

"When it rises one hundred a month, you start to get concerned," Hamm emphasized.

The next meeting of the budget committees will be in September.

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