EXCLUSIVE: St. Clair Correctional Officer talks to WBRC about prison issues
SPRINGVILLE, AL (WBRC) - For the first time, a correctional officer at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville is talking on camera to WBRC about the prison and some of his concerns.
In the video story that aired Thursday evening, the officer asked we blur his face and disguise his voice for fear of retribution and possible termination.
"When I first started working there, it was a whole different kind of camp. The first few years I was like 'man this is sweet.'"
But this officer says over the past few years, St. Clair Correctional Facility has become more dangerous.
In the past year we've reported on three correctional officers stabbed or injured (April 2015, November 2015, March 2016) and as least five inmates stabbed, one of whom died in November 2015.
Two of the correctional officers stabbed, the one in April 2015 and March 2016, had pretty serious injuries, according to their colleague who talked to us on camera.
"He (the one stabbed in April 2015) finally come back to work now," said the correctional officer, "He was in rehab forever. They (the inmates) tried to take his life because they were stabbing him all up the leg to get the artery."
The correctional officer who spoke to WBRC says he and some of his colleagues find it offensive when the spokesperson for the prison system says those types of injuries aren't life threatening.
"The last guy who got stabbed in his dorm, he's still out of work," said the correctional officer, "He's got a scar that runs up and down his stomach from the surgery he had to go through from his non-life threatening wound? Anytime you're attacked with a weapon your life is being threatened."
Bob Horton, a spokesperson for ADOC, says they report injuries as "non-life threatening" based on official medical assessments.
"Reporters will ask, so we include this information in news releases once known," said Horton, "We don't report this information to lessen the seriousness of the incident. We take all inmate-on-officer, and inmate-on-inmate assaults and stabbings very seriously."
MAKESHIFT WEAPONS AND CONTRABAND
"Drugs are rampant in there, cell phones are all over the place"
According to the correctional officer who spoke to WBRC, in all three correctional officer stabbings, prisoners used a homemade object.
"Like vents that are on the wall, like air condition vents, and they have those little slits, they'll work them out over time and they can sharpen them," said the correctional officer, "They have all sorts of ingenious ways to break off metal around the facility and turn it into a knife."
This officer says some inmates carry makeshift knives to protect themselves; others carry to use in a crime and the officer says contraband is a key target.
"Drugs are rampant in there, cell phones are all over the place," the correctional officer said.
He also admitted anyone, including correctional officers, could smuggle in contraband.
"It could be nurses, it could be the people working laundry, it could be the administration, the secretaries. Really anyone has a chance to get caught up in that stuff," he said, "Like we have a metal detector downstairs, but if you're bringing in stuff like drugs or whatever that's not going to go off and they don't have a drug dog there. It's once in a rare rare while will they ever bring the drug dog in when shift change is happening to sniff us out and stuff like that so drugs would be real easy to smuggle on yourself to come in."
"Cell phones are going to be a little bit harder depending on if the detector thing goes off," said the correctional officer, "Sometimes that detector thing, it's not turned up high enough to detect a cell phone and sometimes you can take a chance."
In response to this Horton says all employees and visitors are searched when they enter St. Clair Correctional Facility.
"Current practice includes electronically scanning bags, carrying cases, etc. as employees enter the facility," said Horton, "A walk through metal detector is also used and a pat search is done as employees and visitors enter the facility."
Horton also adds ADOC has K9s specifically trained to detect contraband cell phones and these dogs will be used for detection and routine searches.
The correctional officer says inmates will try to feel out an officer to see if he or she will smuggle in something for the inmate. He says correctional officers have a variety of reasons for wanting to help the inmates.
"Some get involved because they get scared. They're scared in the job itself and so they might start off with something little and it may snowball out of control with them and they do it out of fear. Some do it because they're just crooked people themselves in nature and they just want that money. Some get enticed by it, especially like during the time like raises were frozen and they take a desperate chance just to pay bills. The majority don't get involved in that stuff but the effort to control it is an absolute joke."
The correctional officer explains how employees can meet with inmate's family members outside of prison.
"I've heard where they can meet family members on the outside who give them the stuff and they exchange money then or they do something called a green dot card. I think it's like some kind of debit card thing. They can put money on that card through a phone pin."
But smuggling in contraband isn't the only way it's getting inside the prison.
In October 2015, WBRC reported a package was thrown over the fence at St. Clair Correctional Facility. Found inside the package were two handguns, drugs and cell phones.
The correction officer who spoke to WBRC told us that happened because Warden Dewayne Estes stopped staffing the security tower on the opposite side of the road near the large exercise yard.
"Inmates aren't stupid so time goes by a few months go by and they realize or they know through word of mouth, they don't put an officer up there anymore. So what do they do? They get on their cell phones and they set it up to get those packages through over. One of them being a gun."
At the time of the incident, Horton said a corrections officer was manning the prison tower and noticed the suspicious vehicle and the suspects throwing an object over the fence.
However, Horton said in a recent email to WBRC that the warden has closed the outside posts when deemed necessary for security reasons.
"On April 2, 2016, a low staffing level required the warden close two outside post to add additional staff inside the facility," Horton said, "The warden's decision was based on security needs during a critical situation."
"We used to say 'it's going to take an officer to get hurt for things to change.' Well that started happening and nothing has really started changing. Now the fear is it's going to take somebody to get killed for an officer to get killed for something to change and then it'll be too late."
It's no secret the prisons in Alabama are understaffed.
In November 2015, State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), who is pushing for prison reform in Alabama, admitted St. Clair Correctional Facility is overcrowded and that's putting the officers and employees at risk.
The correctional officer who spoke to WBRC said there are 30-35 correctional officers for each of the four shifts. The officers work 12 hours per shift. He says there are roughly 1,100 inmates in general population and roughly 200 in segregation.
The correctional officer says out of the 30-35 officers on duty per shift, only 3-10 of them are what's called "rovers" meaning they patrol the prison.
The are also the only ones who can respond to an incident such as a stabbing because the other correction officers must stay at their posts.
"Only a rover is allowed to go to a code and on average out of those 30 something, you're going to have anywhere between 3 to 10 rovers," said the correction officer, "You're looking at in a situation in the general population you're looking at 3-10 officers who are the only ones able to go to incidents against 1,100 so when I ran those number I think I was looking at 165 to 1 at the odds and that's crazy odds."
In a previous WBRC report, ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn said during a tour of the St. Clair Correctional Facility, "you'll notice approximately 250 inmates, normally one correctional officer is on post there."
To help with the under-staffing, several correctional officers tell WBRC that ADOC implemented Mandatory Volunteer Overtime in August 2014.
"Basically what it was is they now require us to pick up two shifts a month to help with the staffing," said the correctional officer.
In addition to that, if a shift doesn't have 33 correctional officers, a certain number of officers from the previous shift are required to stay over for an extra 4 hours.
"That's something that has snowballed out of control where when it first started happening it would be like every few weeks your number might come up to now it's getting to the point it's almost every other shift you're working your number's coming up and you're going to be doing 16 hours," the correctional officer told WBRC.
Horton explains why St. Clair Correctional Facility implemented Mandatory Volunteer Overtime.
"Officers are required to work overtime shifts to help fill staffing shortfalls for the safety and security of prison employees and inmates," Horton said, "Mandatory Volunteer Overtime means that officers are required to work overtime, but they may select on their own (volunteer) one day a week, and one day on the weekend on which they would prefer to work their overtime."
"I'm willing to bet that if the night shift didn't call out like that, they wouldn't have come. I guarantee you they wouldn't have come."
Several correctional officers tell WBRC they are fed up with the violence and lack of protection on the job from the DOC.
On Sunday March 20, the correctional officer told WBRC the night shift got word from their Sergeant that there was a strong rumor from the inmates about a possible riot.
This sparked concern among the night shift and we're told between 11-17 correctional officers participated in what's called a "blue flu," meaning they called out sick, leaving the prison severely understaffed.
"In a way it was kind of a way to stand up to the administration for their ignorant decision making for our safety," said the correctional officer.
Several correctional officers say they wanted CERT (Correctional Emergency Response Team) to arrive and help restore order that weekend, but CERT didn't arrive until after the night shift called out for the "blue flu."
"In a sense it was a good thing that they did that because that's what brought the riot team up there," said the correctional officer.
Horton said at the time of the incident CERT responded to assist corrections officers in searching the facility for contraband.
As for information about the "blue flu," Horton said, "11 members of the security staff did not report for the night shift."
"I have to go into work the next day for possibly 16 hours and hope I come home that day and not get stabbed."
Another issue causing some correctional officers to fear for their safety is they say they don't have proper equipment to do their jobs.
The correctional officer who spoke to WBRC said up until December 2015, correctional officers had been allowed to purchase and bring in their own equipment as long as it was approved by their supervisors. The correctional officer says they did this because the prison didn't provide enough equipment, or proper equipment, for them.
"He (Warden Dewayne Estes) initially bought a lot of cheap, wooden batons and some metal batons and basically the Lt. went around to issue out these equipment to people if they needed or wanted it," said the correctional officer, "but there's no handcuffs, no handcuff keys they can give us. The flashlights, they're those big mag lights but they're inconvenient to carry around and really all you need is like a small one if you're doing shake downs and stuff."
Correctional officers say they also used to bring in their own cans of mace or pepper spray, but that has been outlawed too. Now correctional officers say there aren't enough cans of spray to go around and most of them are empty.
"Each shift has a box where they have the cans of spray for each shift, but they do not, whoever is in charge of it, they don't check it all the time to make sure there's enough spray to make sure the cans are full that we're always have adequate equipment," said the correctional officer, "Some shifts, most of the cans are empty! Like you're going to check it out and everybody is checking to see which one has the most spray. They don't have enough sprays in there for all the officers. They only have on average 8, 9, 10 cans of spray."
"You're hoping the guy before you didn't goof off with the spray on his shift or even if he didn't goof off, even if he used it in a serious incident that he, you're hoping that it got replaced, but it never is and so we're left with inadequate equipment like that. And we complain all the time. It's always mentioned, but days, weeks, months go by and nothing is ever done," said the correctional officer.
Horton says correctional officers have access to chemical agents.
"The warden routinely advises officers of the availability of the chemical agents," said Horton, "In addition, officers have access to flashlights and restraints."
In addition to complaints about the portable equipment for correctional officers, we're told some of the radios and telephones don't work in the cubicles where the officers monitor the inmates.
"There have been times where an instance is going on in that block, he can't get on the radio to call for that code. He's got to call the office and seconds are going by, very valuable seconds are going by," said the correctional officer.
Horton says it's the officer's responsibility to make sure the radio batteries are charged.
"Officers are normally issued two batteries with the radio," Horton said, "As an issued item of equipment, officers are responsible for ensuring radio batteries are charged."
Horton goes on to say it's the officer's responsibility to report to a supervisor if a telephone isn't working. In an email to WBRC on April 6, 2016 Horton said all of the telephones are reported operational.
"There are occasions when the telephone system is inoperable, but emergency measures are implemented to correct communication issues as soon as possible," said Horton, "The warden has not received current reports of telephones issues inside the facility cubicles."
Another security issue mentioned by the correctional officer who spoke to WBRC is broken locks on the inmate's cells.
"You can't lock St. Clair down like you think you can," said the correctional officer, "We can run them to the blocks. They can come out of their cells easily. Lock down in a sense is a joke."
The officer said at the end of March 2016, he saw contract workers looking at some of the locks and possibly starting to repair the broken ones.
"The facility has identified some problems with some cell locking mechanisms," Horton said, "A contract is in place to replace the locks. The facility is locked-down when required by placing security where needed during critical situations."
The correctional officer told WBRC about a year ago, the plan was to fix all the locks block by block. He says the prison moved all of the inmates from Q block to the H dorm, which housed the therapeutic community.
"It's a program where you have counselors that run it, but then you have inmates that are in charge of it," said the correctional officer, "They do various things as far as running counseling sessions, keeping the blocks clean, little things that help build their maturity, help them get something to work to, and it was a good program that helped these guys that really wanted it."
The problem is the inmates from Q block are still there. They have taken over the therapeutic center.
"They were meant to be down there temporarily to where these contractors come in and these engineers or whatever so they could change all the doors and locks and then once that was done you move them back in and do the next block," the correctional officer told WBRC, "Meanwhile, the rehab program has completely shut down cause you got these inmates who were trying to run the program, the gangs are threatening them with violence like 'you're not going to write me up for this, I'll stab you.'"
WHAT'S THE SOLUTION?
On Tuesday the Alabama Senate passed the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act.
This plan proposed by Governor Robert Bentley will allow ADOC to use a $1.5 billion bond issue and build four new prisons in the state, three for men and one for women.
Governor Bentley also said programs are being implemented to train correctional officers better and a new integrity unit has been searching out corruption.
Governor Bentley praised the Senate's vote by releasing this statement:
"Today is another significant step in the effort to address the prison issues, as the Senate cleared a critical hurdle in transforming Alabama's decades old prison system through the Prison Transformation Initiative Act. I commend the Senate for taking a bold and decisive step toward prioritizing public safety in our prison system with the construction of four new prisons. The passage of this bill will help reduce overcrowding and will provide safer conditions for corrections officers as well as inmates within the facilities. New facilities will also create greater opportunities to reduce the risk of recidivism. As this legislation moves to the House, I look forward to working with House members to pass the Prison Transformation Initiative Act."
But opponents see flaws with this bill.
Rhonda Brownstein, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, issued this statement:
"There is no doubt Alabama's prison system is facing a crisis, and we commend the state for recognizing that this problem must be fixed, but, by passing Gov. Bentley's massive, $1.5 billion prison-building plan, the Alabama Senate has chosen the wrong path to reverse the prison crisis in the state. As Senator Cam Ward has said, we can't build our way out of this crisis. Before adding more prison beds and putting taxpayers on the hook for $1.5 billion, the Legislature needs to take much stronger steps to reduce the prison population to ensure that we no longer lock up so many people for minor, nonviolent offenses."
While this may be a long-term solution, it's not an immediate fix, something desperately needed at St. Clair Correctional Facility.
"You may lose officers in a sense because depending on where they locate these things, they may not be able to travel and they may lose staffing, said the correctional officer who spoke to WBRC, "In one way it's an answer because these facilities are so old, but in another way it's got its problems with it, but it's definitely not what we need to talk about now."
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