Chronic understaffing grows worse at Alabama's Tutwiler Prison

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( — U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson is holding hearings on the Alabama Department of Corrections' plan to increase staffing in response to Thompson's finding last summer that mental health care in prisons is "horrendously inadequate."

Wendy Williams, deputy commissioner for women's services for the DOC, took the stand this morning to begin what is expected to be about three weeks of hearings. DOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn is also expected to testify.

Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Maria Morris questioned Williams this morning about staffing trends at Tutwiler, the state's only major prison for women. DOC reports showed that in September 2011, Tutwiler had 93 correctional officers out of an authorized staff of 160. Five years later, Tutwiler had 70 officers. By October of this year, the number was down to 56.

Williams testified that it's generally harder to hire and retain correctional officers when the economy is strong. The unemployment rate in Alabama has dropped to historically low levels.

The starting salary for a correctional officer is $29,954. Starting pay is 5 percent higher with an associate's degree and 10 percent higher with a bachelor's degree.

An officer starting at the minimum salary is eligible for a step increase to $30,724 after the first year and up to $33,086 at five years, said Bob Horton, spokesman for the DOC.

Thompson asked Williams if pay for correctional officers needs to be raised to help attract and retain more officers. Williams said it did.

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