MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told Montgomery legislators on Feb. 15 that Alabama prisons are dangerously underprepared in the event of a prison fire. None of the state’s 15 prisons, which house approximately 25,000 inmates, currently have a functional fire alarm system, Dunn said in a statement to lawmakers.
“It’s pervasive in our system…that we have deficiencies in our fire alarm systems,” said Dunn, as reported by AL.com.
He added that, despite the widespread alarm deficiencies, the state does have evacuation procedures in place should an entire facility or a portion of a facility need to be evacuated in the event of a fire.
Dunn added that the state is currently relying on correctional officers already posted throughout the state prisons to alert each other to issues through what he called “a verbal system.” Correctional staffing levels, however, are already low throughout the state, while inmate populations remain significantly over capacity. Alabama’s prison population stands at roughly 180 percent of its rated capacity, while staffing numbers hover at 50 percent of the recommended level. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, for example, once had a staff of 103 correctional officers; however, that number has dropped to 63. Hiring part-time corrections officers and the use of overtime are the only things filling the gap.
Dunn also said in speaking with state lawmakers that other health and safety problems, such as issues with electrical and plumbing systems, continue to slow department progress. “I think the salient point is that (failing fire alarms are) just one of a dozen things that we face,” Dunn said, as reported by AL.com.
To address both infrastructure and crowding problems, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley proposed a series of sweeping changes to the state’s prison system in 2016 under a plan known as the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative (APTI). The $800 million plan would include the construction of four new mega prisons, including three, 4,000-bed men’s prisons and a new women’s facility to replace the existing Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. While APTI failed to gain approval in the last legislative session, it is expected to reappear in the current session, which began Feb. 7.
The state is also facing a recent lawsuit from prison inmates who allege that the state has failed to provide adequate mental health services. The suit claims the mental health care currently provided is so poor that it violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Rising inmate suicide rates have also led inmates to accuse the department of not doing enough to prevent suicide in the prison system.