DOC chief outlines prison consolidation plan

Published 3:00 am Thursday, June 30, 2016

Messenger photo/jacob holmes Jeff Dunn, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, poses with Troy Kiwanis Club leaders Joel Williams (left) and Caleb Dawson (right).

Messenger photo/Jacob Holmes
Jeff Dunn, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, poses with Troy Kiwanis Club leaders Joel Williams (left) and Caleb Dawson (right).

Jeff Dunn, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, spoke to Troy Kiwanis Club members Tuesday about his plan to fix the oft-maligned state prison system.

“In the Air Force I learned that you have to assess the battle space before making decisions,” he said. “I got a bit of a ‘baptism by fire’ when I started in April 2015, starting right in the middle of the legislative session. But after that ended, I went around and visited all 28 of our facilities in Alabama, meeting with thousands of personnel and even holding focus groups with inmates to understand the current state of the system.”

Dunn said that his time spent visiting the prisons and speaking with inmates and personnel led to three key observations.

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“My first observation was that corrections is an absolutely thankless job,” he said. “Most kids don’t want to grow up to be a corrections officer. With that said, I was extremely impressed with our staff’s commitment to public safety. They really take great pride in what they do.

“My second observation was that our facilities are in dire need of repair and replacement. We have a facility that was built in 1939 and has been running 24 hours a day seven days a week non-stop since then. So has [Julia S. Tutwiler Prison for Women] which opened in 1942. “

Dunn said that he has heard a prison called “positively medieval.” He said that he did not disagree. “These places aren’t intended to be a Holiday Inn,” he said. “But we’re way beyond that. We have the highest overcrowding rate in America.”

Dunn said his third observation was that that all the stats were going the wrong way.

“I’m a data guy,” he said. “I like to measure things. My motto for reform is that it should be fact-based and data-driven.” Dunn said that he began tracking data on violence rates, officer retention rates and recidivism rates. “They’re all trending in the wrong direction,” he said. “It’s a byproduct of 30 years of neglect in the department.”

Based on his observations, Dunn and his department drafted the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act.

“We took into account three things that we knew our plan had to do,” he said. “It couldn’t cost Alabama any extra money; it had to address recruiting and retention rates as well as overcrowding; and it had to attack recidivism.”

What Dunn and his team came up with is a plan to close 14 of the 16 major facilities in Alabama, consolidating the 13 men’s facilities into three new facilities and making a new women’s facility to replace Tutwiler. Even though there will be fewer facilities, Dunn said that these modern facilities will be able to house 4,000 inmates each, actually raising the capacity from 13,318 to 16,000. There are currently more than 24,000 inmates in the system, Dunn said, but he expects other Alabama laws to drop that number by about 4,500 over the next five years. This, he said, would drop the overcrowding rate from 181 percent to 125 percent, a step that he said could keep the federal government from stepping in and forcing the state to spend billions of dollars on prison reform. Dunn said that the $800 million plan will pay for itself by consolidating staff from 16 facilities into six. “My current manning level is about 65 percent, and I make up for that by mandatory overtime,” he said. “I’m working my staff to death. By reducing the number of facilities to six, I can consolidate the staff to where it’s at 100 percent because it’s all at one facility. Each of these facilities is like a small city.”

As for attacking recidivism rates, Dunn said that programs would be integrated into the plane. “We’re the department of corrections,” he said. “Correcting behavior should be a significant part of what we do. But programs weren’t originally built into the system. With these new facilities we’ll have the opportunity to integrate programs into the facility and I won’t have to get extra security because we’ll have designated areas for education and other programs already set up.”

Dunn said that he was proud of the “volunteer spirit” that Alabama had, with citizens and private organizations willing to provide programs to the inmates whether it’s faith-based, education or just teaching basic life skills.

The Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act passed the Senate in the legislative session but died in the House before it could reach the floor. Dunn said that he believes the bill had the votes though, and plans to bring it forward in the next legislative session, whether it’s a special session called by Gov. Robert Bentley or the next regular session.