Undermanned guards worry
By Bob Johnson
Corrections Officer Perry Woods is often outnumbered 386 to 1 as he attempts to guard convicted felons jammed into warehouse-like quarters at Kilby Correctional Institute.
Divided down the middle, the prison dorm has 193 beds on each side and a control station in the middle. Woods, alone, must walk back and forth between the two sections, looking over the long rows of bunk beds on each side for signs of drug use, weapons, quarreling or other mischief.
Woods knows missing something could cost him his life. He also knows there's no way he can watch everyone in the two massive sleeping and living areas.
"I get nervous just walking through the front gate," said Woods, a corrections officer for 18 years.
It's a nervousness shared by corrections officers across the state as
Alabama's prisons deal with too many inmates packed into spaces with two few corrections staff -- and little hope of finding an extra $100 million at a time of budget shortfalls.
The prison system currently has a daily average of 25,155 inmates housed in prisons designed to hold 12,387. And many county jails are overflowing because of state inmates waiting for space in a state lockup.
There are currently on payroll 2,687 officers to guard the prisoners, more than 400 officers short of the number authorized. The shortage of 208 was exacerbated when another 214 were called to military duty because of the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq.
State and federal judges have ordered an end to overcrowded conditions in prisons and jails, a task being undertaken at a time when the state's two major budgets face a $500 million shortfall.
The Alabama House is scheduled to vote Tuesday for final passage of legislation to provide $4.55 million in emergency funding to the prison system, partly to transfer new women prisoners to private prisons in Louisiana and to provide more space for male inmates in Alabama prisons.
Prison officials and lawmakers see the emergency funding as a Band Aid measure designed just to deal with the concerns of the two judges. A bill to provide another $25 million in emergency funding is being considered and prison officials say they need a more than $100 million increase in next year's budget, an amount unlikely to be found.
The challenge facing corrections officers can be seen quickly at Kilby prison in the Mount Meigs community just east of Montgomery. Behind fences wrapped in barbed wire, the sprawling prison holds about 1,400 convicted felons, a number that often grows from day to day. It's the intake facility for almost all male state prisoners.
The inmates start their state incarceration in the intake area at Kilby's back gate, where they take off their county jail uniforms, shower, are sprayed for parasites, get a haircut and don the white pants and shirts worn by state inmates. One of the first people new prisoners meet is Officer Scott Dunson.
"Each inmate is checked thoroughly, and any property he has that is considered contraband will be mailed out or destroyed," Dunson said.
From there inmates enter the prison population, where they may stay for up to six weeks before being transferred to another prison, depending on the availability of space, said corrections spokesman Brian Corbett. A few will become part of the 500 prisoners who are permanent residents at Kilby.
It's those permanent residents that Woods is charged with watching by himself in the massive dormitory. Corbett said if the prison was at full staff there would be at least three officers in the building, one watching each side and one manning the control station in the middle. Woods says there's no way one person can see everything that goes on among 386 men in a building the size of two gymnasiums.
"You can only do the best you can do. You try to move from one side to the other. It's impossible to catch everything," he said.
Because of the court orders, the number of prisoners coming into Kilby every day has increased from 175 to 275. With these ever-increasing numbers, beds are crammed into much of the available space, including 45 in an area that once was the prison's chapel.
The numbers problem is best illustrated in the 200-seat dining hall, where the prison staff must figure out how to feed 1,400 prisoners three meals a day. There almost aren't enough hours to make it work.
Breakfast is served starting at 4 a.m. and inmates are given 30 minutes to eat. The breakfast shifts end, with just enough time to get ready for lunch, which is served starting at 10 a.m. Inmates start lining up for dinner at about 3 p.m.
The dining hall is watched by three officers, although shift supervisor Lt. Leon Bolling says ideally there would be 10 to make sure the prisoners stick to eating and don't try to sneak out utensils, which can be turned into weapons.
It's up to Bolling to make sure there are enough officers on his shift to maintain minimum safety levels. He said the department has authorized liberal use of overtime pay, which means most officers work their off days to keep the prison staffed at a minimum level. But, that also has a downside.
"Eventually the stress factor kicks in and we have to instruct people that they have to take a day off," Bolling said.
<<The dining hall is watched by three officers, although shift supervisor Lt. Leon Bolling says ideally there would be 10 to make sure the prisoners stick to eating and don't try to sneak out utensils, which can be turned into weapons.>>
My understanding from Patrick and Honorio is that metal utensils are forbidden - only plastic spoons and sometimes forks. So the above statement is not true.
Throwing money at the overcrowding problem isn't the total answer. Training guards to abuse is not the answer either. Arresting people for non-violent drug-related crimes is not the answer, and neither is arresting the mentally ill or insane. The bad laws on the books need to be changed. The non-violent need to be sent to a rehabilitation center if they are addicts, or released if not addicts. The already-rehabilitated need to be released. The inmates who have served 85% of their time need to be released and sent to a halfway/transition house so they can learn how to re-enter society.
In the meantime, the ABUSE must stop!