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Alabama Guard Shortage Results in Huge Overtime Pay

by David Reutter

Alabama paid $20.8 million in overtime to guards for staffing of its prisons in calendar year 2013. That is an increase of an average of $13 million over the previous for years.

From 2000 to 2012, Alabama’s prison budget swelled from $173.5 million to $373.5 million. Despite that increase, prisons remain understaffed as a result of attempts to cut budgets. A hiring freeze has hampered efforts to increase the number of guards in the work pool.

According to Kristi Gates, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), a minimum of 2,350 to 2,400 guards are required to staff ADOC’s prisons. For the fiscal year ended in September, ADOC averaged only 2,150 guards in is workforce.

The shortage has forced ADOC to offer overtime to guards who volunteer to fill empty slots. That has created a windfall of earnings for some guards.

Irvin Harris, a guard at Kilby Correctional Facility, was ADOC top earner from 2009 to 2013, earning $492,752.08 over that period. Close behind were guards Lercy Jamison, Jr., ($461,964.59) and Samuel E, Johnson, III ($406,085.47). Over that five year period, at least 20 ADOC guards earned more than $325,000.

Of Harris’ earning, $245,997 was for overtime pay. The 20 listed above made at least $28,870 in extra pay. In all, 2995 ADDC employees earned $20.8 million in overtime, which is two-thirds of its work force. Even those in the commissioner’s office earn overtime. Capt. Cynthia Nelson earned $43,480 in overtime working weekends and traveling to job fairs across the state to recruit new guards.

Experts warn that excessive overtime can cause problems. “The commonly held belief is that it reaches a point, particularly a stressful job, including all law enforcement positions and health care positions where a range of things happens,” said Richard Greene president of the public policy and management firm Barrett & Greene. “You become too worn out to do the job you’re asked to do. You make inadvertent mistakes.”

Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison that houses repeat offenders with lengthy sentences and several hundred with life without parole sentences, experience the most overtime. It’s rated for a ration of six prisoners to every guard to be adequately staffed. Currently, it has about 176 guards to supervise those 1,481 prisoners, an 8.4 to 1 guard to prisoner ratio. It has used overtime to increase the number of onsite guards to 216, or a 6.9 to 1 ratio, which cost ADOC $2.9 million in overtime last year.

By contract, Limestone Correction Facility, which former deputy warden David Wise called “the best placed to do time” in ADOC, spent only $1.1 million in overtime to supervise 2,263 prisoners. Wise said the difference is the culture of the prisons. Donaldson is extremely rough, he said: “The reason they use more overtime, too, I think is because it’s just a stressful environment. You have more folks calling and staying out sick.”

One state senator agrees that budget cuts are the main contributor to guard shortages in ADOC prisons, and he advocates for that policy to continue. “I think that’s what driving the overtime pay scale, and it’s actually cheaper to use overtime than hiring full-time employee,” said State Sen Cam Ward. “The benefits package is what kills you.”