FOLEY - Commissioner of Alabama Department of Corrections Jeff Dunn spoke at the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce’s recent Leadership Series, and detailed issues and problems faced by the department, future plans and the department’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan.
Dunn, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, was appointed commissioner in April 2015, and manages an inmate population of over 20,000 offenders, 26 correctional institutions, over 3,300 correctional officers, supervisors, and support staff, and operates an annual budget exceeding $500 million. Approximately $80 million is generated through the department’s program to contribute to the cost of incarceration.
“The two most important ingredients to success for someone who leaves prison are the opportunities provided in prison to get skills, an education, and address the issues that brought them to prison, and the support structure outside of prison to be with them while they’re there and be there when they get out,” Dunn said. “We do all of the things required of a correctional agency, which first and foremost is public safety, keeping those who are supposed to be behind the fence behind the fence … It’s also our job to deliver back to society someone who is prepared to be a law-abiding, productive citizen and not a re-offender.”
Dunn says many challenges being faced by the department today are results of decisions implemented in the 70s and 80s which are no longer relevant. With new requirements in place, the department is having to adjust accordingly, and, swiftly.
“One of my favorite quotes by Winston Churchill is ‘the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, but the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty,’ and we’ve made the conscious choice as a leadership team in the department to go from being the pessimist that sees difficulty to the optimist that sees opportunity in every difficulty,” Dunn said. “By that definition, we have a whole host of opportunities in the Department of Corrections.”
The three top issues faced by the department today are overcrowding, understaffing, and violence and contraband, Dunn said.
Statistics show Alabama prisons are currently 150 percent overcapacity, a decrease over the last four years when prisons were 200 percent overcapacity.
Prisons, he said, are understaffed by 50 – 30 percent. These two conditions combined lead to a high rate of violence and contraband, which Dunn says may be the highest in the nation.
To combat the current issues found in Alabama prisons, the Alabama Department of Corrections leadership has developed a strategic plan.
“This is our intent to build a roadmap to take the resources that we have and focus them to move towards a new vision for the department,” Dunn said. “This new vision is very simple: we want to do our part to make Alabama safe. Our mission is we want to be a team of dedicated professionals that provide public safety, and the way we do that is to safely and securely confine, rehabilitate, and help with reentry of offenders. The nuance there is reentry is a new mission set for us that we’ve embraced.”
Dunn says historically, the department has focused on security and confinement, and rehabilitation was done only after the resources for security were in place. Until now there was no large emphasis on reentry.
To correct this, the department has begun to backwards engineer from the end results to the beginning planning stages. They have asked questions such as, what the leadership wants the inmates to look like when they leave prison and how they want to assist the inmates for re-entry and for public safety.
The rest of the plan will be built based on the answers to create a department that will drive the actions of every day of an inmate’s incarceration, towards the end goal.
Thus the strategic plan was created with large focuses in four areas: staffing, infrastructure, programming, and culture.
To address staffing issues, the department took a long look at compensation, recruiting, and retention. An academy was created that originally enrolled approximately 40 people, and in less than four months has resulted in over 200 new hires and has trained over 100 individuals.
“We’ve done that by re-engineering our recruiting efforts, by rebuilding our training pipelines and our training capacity, and then building a compensation package that makes corrections competitive with our other law enforcement brothers and sisters,” Dunn said.
An attempt to regionalize the corrections system has begun to help with infrastructure, and will condense the 25 current male facilities spread across the state into regional complexes focused towards the eventual re-entry of inmates into society.
“Part of that infrastructure plan is to redo our work release system to try to address this burgeoning need for workers and to get a strong pipeline in various areas for the 8,000 inmates that are leaving to have them come directly into the workforce with skills and training that they need to become a great benefit to businesses,” said Dunn.
Programming refers to: treatment, including medical, mental health, substance abuse, or life skills education; education, with a high focus in literacy, general adult basic education, and GEDs; and vocational certifications to give inmates skills to re-enter society, apply in a competitive market and get a living wage job.
The final focal point is culture, the last piece needed to steer inmates on the right path for re-entry.
“If you neglect anything for 30 years, such as an organization, and don’t pay the people, don’t invest in their work environment, don’t invest in their professional development, don’t communicate that you care about who they are and what they do and that they bring value into their environment and into their state, then that situation is going to deteriorate over time, and that’s what we’ve seen in the department,” Dunn said. “We’ve got pockets of culture that are not acceptable, pockets of practices that have grown up over the years that we’re trying to do away with.”
The leadership staff is working to professionalize the Department of Corrections and hopes to make it into a department that employees are proud to work for that makes a positive impact on the community and the state.
Dunn said he hopes that to achieve the goal and vision of the Department of Corrections, business leaders in the communities will be open to the idea of hiring a workforce that includes those with felonies who have re-entered into society.
“I hear from business leaders across the state that employ our inmates that they’re no different from the current workforce,” Dunn said. “We ask for business leaders to please be open to the idea that there may be opportunity for someone who has a felony record to come into a workspace and deliver value to the company.”
Second, he asked that business leaders let the department know what they’re looking for within their workforce. Ingram State Technical College is the only community college to Dunn’s knowledge that has an inmate population as its sole student body and offers a wide variety of programs for inmates to choose from.
Ingram works with prisons across Alabama to deliver adult basic education and trade certification, and Dunn asked for business leaders to let the department know what programs would be beneficial additions to Ingram’s curriculum to provide inmates with skills needed in today’s workforce.
For more information on the Department of Corrections or to view the strategic plan, check out their website at www.doc.state.al.us.