Monday, September 25, 2006

Shortage of guards dangerous situation

Montgomery Advertiser

The chronic overcrowding of Alabama's prison systems gets most of the attention, but there is another troubling issue the Department of Corrections faces and that should concern Alabamians. The system has too many prisoners, to be sure, but it also has far too few corrections officers to supervise them.

Prison Commissioner Richard Allen, in an address to a civic club reported by the Huntsville Times, said that the department is about 400 officers short of what it needs. That is profoundly disturbing.

"This is a very dangerous and desperate situation for our department," he said. DOC loses 25-30 officers per month to law enforcement jobs that pay better and have more desirable working conditions, he said.

"We're getting by right now on overtime," Allen said, noting that the overtime will run to about $25 million in the current fiscal year.

This is no minor problem. For several years now, Alabamians have been hearing horror stories of one or two corrections officers supervising hundreds of inmates. They have heard wardens say the state has been incredibly lucky not to have had a major outbreak of prison violence, a riot or other disturbance that would be difficult to contain.

The shortage of corrections officers is indeed dangerous. It is dangerous for the corrections officers themselves, who are routinely being placed in situations in which their numbers are plainly inadequate. It is dangerous for other prison personnel.

It is dangerous for the law-abiding public, which could be endangered if a major outbreak of prison violence escalated beyond the capacity of understaffed institutions to contain.

And it is dangerous for the inmates. That is not something Alabamians should be quick to discount. The state has some basic obligations to its prisoners. When the state deprives an individual of liberty, it assumes a solemn responsibility for that individual. That is compromised when there are too few corrections officers in place.

The overcrowding of the prison population is only made more problematic by the all-too-thin ranks of corrections officers. Allen and the department, who hardly need any more issues to deal with, have a big problem here.

The solution to this problem is very simple. Release all non-violent drug offenders from prison. It is estimated that 30 to 40 % of Alabama's current prison population is incarcerated for non-violent drug and alcohol offenses. That number does not include those sent back to prison for a failed urine test or inability to pay a court referral/probation/parole officer. Of 28,000 (current prison population) an estimated 11,200 could be released and that would go a long way to evening out the ratio of guards to inmates and solving the overcrowding crisis.

However, the government hates anything simple and logical. What will likely happen is that more prisons will be built and more guards hired and more tax dollars will be wasted on a problem that never should have been handled through the criminal justice system.

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