Commissioner: Pandemic has highlighted ADOC’s challenges

Updated: Aug. 18, 2020 at 8:26 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the pandemic poses challenges to keep inmates safe in the state’s prisons.

For instance, he said inmates can’t social distance in some dorms.

“So in their residential areas in the dorm, no, we can’t social distance,” Dunn said. “In other facilities that have the more traditional cell, like we are able to social distance. So it really depends on the facility as to the amount of social distancing that we can do.”

Dunn said this is why ADOC advocates for the governor’s proposed three new megapisons.

“Our facilities aren’t designed to help us in a pandemic,” he said. “They don’t help us with respect to violence, they don’t help us with respect to rehabilitation. There’s a lot of deficiencies with our facilities, and the pandemic has highlighted some of those challenges.”

A video recorded by an inmate recently surfaced on Facebook. It showed conditions at Alabama’s Bullock Correctional Facility. There appears to be holes in the floors, standing water and sinks not working.

In response, the Alabama Department of Corrections said it can confirm a dorm at the facility is on a level one quarantine.

An ADOC spokesperson also said in an email that publishing the video would “negatively will impact the very delicate and sensitive correctional environment. It is not an exaggeration to say that by promoting the presence and use of illegal contraband, you are putting lives at risk.”

The spokesperson said they looked into the issues shown in the video. They confirmed only one sink and one toilet were inoperable after examining all toilets and sinks in the dormitories.

“Our Engineering Department and Facilities Management teams work tirelessly to combat issues related to failing infrastructure, but face incredible resourcing challenges - both monetary and in human capital. Faced daily with over $800 million in deferred maintenance projects, coupled with an inmate population that actively and intently works around the clock to destroy our facilities to include items just repaired, issues like those shown in the video cannot be avoided,” the spokesperson said in the email.

Dunn said staff members have their temperatures taken and are required to wear a mask when inside the prisons.

“They’re readily available if they need to replace them. And they are expected to wear their masks anytime they are outside of their residential area,” he said. “And they are encouraged to wear them while they are in their residential area.”

They have hand sanitizing stations in the prisons and more is available upon request. Dunn said it was a struggle to find personal protective equipment, but the community helped step up.

“And provided literally thousands of small bottles of soap of bar soap of shampoo of hand sanitizers that we distributed to our entire inmate population. And so we make all of that available to our inmates,” he said.

Dillon Nettles with the ACLU of Alabama said they were disappointed with how the ADOC has handled the situation.

“From the very beginning of this virus beginning to impact Alabama, we knew that our prisons were tinderboxes for the infection,” Nettles said. “We knew that there was no possibility for social distancing to be practice with within the facilities that these people are incarcerated.”

Nettles said they wanted some inmates to be released because of the pandemic.

“People who are already near the end of their sentence to be released, to be released back to their families and their communities so that they can be taken care of so that they can be safe,” he said.

Nettles said they are receiving reports from family members of inmates and inmates inside that the facilities are not providing the proper PPE.

“Unfortunately, the reports that we’re getting from many people and family members who have folks who are within these facilities is not positive, is demonstrating that ADOC is not taking this seriously in terms of providing the proper PPE to people inside to ensure that also the employees are protected and to ensure that those who are incarcerated are protected from the employees potentially spreading the virus,” he said.

Nettles said they are also concerned about the lack of mental health care supports.

“And so we are actually looking at a disaster on top of a disaster,” he said.

According to ADOC data, 323 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and about 188 have recovered. Eighteen inmates have died from the virus.

A total of 348 employees have tested positive and about 270 have recovered, according to ADOC. Two employees have died.

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