United States: commissioner says Alabama prison system culture must change

Much has been reported about the scarcity of staff, overcrowding, and crumbling physical conditions in Alabama’s prisons.

Another topic in the Alabama Department of Corrections’ strategic plan that has received less attention concerns how correctional officers and their supervisors go about doing their jobs every day decisions they make that can’t necessarily be blamed on difficult working conditions.

In an interview last week, ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn talked about changing the culture in the prison system. The U.S. Department of Justice report alleging unconstitutional conditions in men’s prisons cites many examples of failures by the ADOC staff to take basic steps to protect inmates and to document and investigate the violence.

“We recognize that there are aspects of the DOC culture that don’t meet our values,” Dunn said. “Our core values are professionalism, accountability and integrity. You just have to read the DOJ report and you can see that there are times in which members of the DOC have not upheld those values.”

The report, the product of a two-year investigation, said the ADOC underreported homicides, violence and sexual assaults, failed to protect prisoners even after warnings of violence, and that ADOC employees were main suppliers for the drug trade causing much of the violence.

Dunn, who took over a troubled prison system four years ago after a career in the Air Force, said the situation demands more than stopping the corruption.

“The point is that we are trying to create a culture in which that does not exist, but not only that it doesn’t exist but the reverse of it exists,” Dunn said. “And it’s a culture of professionals who see being involved in corrections as a way to provide public safety for their state and be involved in the process of providing that public safety while also potentially impacting the lives of an individual and enabling them the opportunity to improve their life.”

Dunn said he’s drawn on his military experience to try to change the ADOC culture, partly with a focus on leadership development, which he said was almost nonexistent when he arrived in 2015. Dunn initiated the establishment of a leadership academy.

“So now every officer, at every point of promotion – sergeant, lieutenant, captain, warden – are going through a course in our leadership academy that deals with emphasis on our core values communication skills, leadership skills, conflict resolution, decision-making skills,” Dunn said. “Those types of things that create the culture in your organization.”

“How do we treat people? What’s the environment that you live in? Is it a positive environment? Is it an environment that people want to come to work to where they feel like they can make a contribution but also achieve their own personal and professional goals? Or is it a caustic environment in which people feel mistreated or unappreciated, those types of things?”

Besides changing the culture, the ADOC’s “Strategic Plan 2019-2022,” sets goals in staffing, infrastructure and programming.

Dunn said it was in the works for 18 months, before the DOJ report, which was issued on April 2.

The commissioner said the three-year plan can serve as a guide to confronting problems DOJ highlighted. Dunn said that will take years and increased funding.

“It’s going to take concerted, dedicated effort over a number of years to get us to where we need to go,” Dunn said. “We think this is a road map to get us there. Is it perfect? No, it’s not perfect. Is it what we believe to be the best solution on the table right now? And we’re moving out and executing it as quickly as we can? Yeah, we do.”

The ADOC’s challenges with staffing and the poor physical condition of the prisons are well documented.

Even before the DOJ report, a five-year-old federal lawsuit was driving changes, including the need to improve mental health care and increase staff. In that case, the ADOC is under a court order to add more than 2,000 correctional officers over the next few years, a number based on the ADOC’s own staffing analysis, which shows it has one-third the number of officers needed.

Last week, the Legislature passed a bill to increase correctional officer pay and provide bonuses intended to help hire and keep more officers on the job. The General Fund budget pending in the Legislature includes a funding increase to pay for those incentives.

The ADOC has streamlined the hiring process and created a new, entry-level correctional officer position that can put officers on the job more quickly.

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