|Critical Issues in Corrections – 2017|
|By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University|
The word “crisis” is sometimes tossed about with impunity, particularly by politicians with a pet cause or journalists with stories to push. More often than not, such casual or repetitive use of the word numbs the general public to the true severity of problems, though on the other hand it may seem near-impossible to attract attention otherwise amidst the day-to-day clamor of voices vying for our collective attention. Still, there is no shortage of critical issues facing corrections professionals. Instead of focusing on a single crisis—there, we said it—we will examine three specific cases that are emblematic of the challenges facing the wider community.
Budgets: Oklahoma Department of Corrections
Joe Allbaugh, who became the Oklahoma DOC’s director in early 2016, has compared the department to a doomed ship. Allbaugh is no stranger to true crisis; he is a former director of FEMA. Yet in June 2017 he told an Oklahoma City TV news program, “The Department of Corrections, to a certain extent, is the Titanic. It’s already hit the iceberg.” In a presentation to the Board of Corrections, staff members from some of the department’s facilities outlined budget-based woes including broken HVAC systems, “unmet mental health care needs,” a “severe lack of educational programming,” and a water storage tank “full of holes plugged by a mop handle and a toothbrush.”
In August 2017, the department set a population record of 63,009—the third record in less than a year. In May, the state’s prisons had already reached 109% of capacity. Some 1,716 offenders are housed in county jails as a result of overcrowding at a cost of $16.6 million annually, and the aforementioned shortfalls in educational programming resulted mostly from having to use day areas for temporary beds.
Allbaugh estimates that the agency’s current budget is about one-third the amount it actually needs. He has called for three new medium-security facilities, two for males and one for females, which would cost $1.2 billion to construct and about $700 million over ten years to operate. However, the state currently pays private facilities to house over 5,000 inmates, and Allbaugh has opined that “It is not…the Department of Corrections’ job to support the private prison industry.” The agency also faces staff shortages, with one warden telling the board that at one point he was managing 1,400 inmates with 54 officers. Starting pay for officers is less than $13 an hour, making recruitment challenging.
Faced with little in the way of options, the department announced in September that it would release 1,445 offenders into a community supervision program to reduce overcrowding.
Staffing: Florida Department of Corrections
Florida faces a challenge similar to one of Oklahoma’s: recruiting and retaining staff. Facilities in the northeastern part of the state are in the worst shape with a 17% vacancy rate. Corrections secretary Julie Jones told state legislators in March 2017 that her existing staff members are “young, inexperienced, and tired,” that she is “not retaining experienced staff,” and that “In some places I can’t hire.” She identified 15 facilities as having “high” vacancy rates and quoted a 95% turnover rate among experienced corrections and parole officers, who leave for either non-corrections jobs or to work for county jails that offer hiring bonuses. The current starting salary is $30,900, which Jones has asked to push to $33,500.
The staff shortage is also particularly pressing in the state’s 10 mental health units. A disability rights group filed suit against the state in 2015, with the U.S. Department of Justice joining that suit in January 2017, though the case is reportedly in mediation. She also asked specifically for higher pay for officers working in those units.
Mental Health: Alabama Department of Corrections
In late June 2017, a federal judge issued his opinion in Braggs v. Dunn, a class-action suit against the Alabama DOC over mental health care in its prisons. Ironically, one 24-year-old offender who was a witness in the suit in late December 2016 committed suicide a week and a half after testifying. Once again one state’s challenges echo those of another, as we just saw that Florida is facing its own suit over correctional mental health care.
The opinion in Braggs concluded that Alabama’s 14 prisons have a mental health care system that is so “grossly inadequate” that it rises to the level of an Eighth Amendment violation. The judge found that the department fails to identify and treat inmates with mental health problems, does not provide enough qualified staff to treat those it does identify, and routinely “[imposes] disciplinary sanctions on prisoners for symptoms of their mental illness…without regard for the impact of sanctions on their mental health.” About 3,400 offenders, or 20% of Alabama’s inmate population, currently receive some form of mental health treatment.
Although “ADOC officials admitted on the stand that they have done little to nothing to fix problems on the ground, despite their knowledge that those problems may be putting lives at risk,” according to the opinion, citing the “skyrocketing suicide rate with ADOC in the last two years,” they pointed primarily to overcrowding and understaffing as the causes. These echo the issues faced by Oklahoma and Florida that were described earlier.
Budgets, staffing, and mental health are hardly the only challenges faced by corrections agencies in today’s environment. Debates still rage, for example, about federal use of private facilities and the involvement of a relatively small number of insurance companies in the $14 billion bail bond industry. But as the three examples cited above demonstrate, budget constraints, staffing shortages, and the quality of mental health care—along with follow-on effects of tight budgets such as overcrowding—are intimately intertwined to form a Gordian knot of devilish complexity. It will take cooperation among state legislative and executive branches and corrections agencies to find solutions in an era of scarce tax dollars, and a concerted effort to educate the public about the true cost of ensuring their safety while providing humane, effective, and rehabilitative custody for offenders.
Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.
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