Alabama Prisons

“These guys are scared”

Both prisoners and guards are on strike in this overcrowded, chaotic Alabama prison

Corrections officers aren’t showing up to work at this Alabama prison

Additional reporting by Antonia Hylton, Sara Jerving and Alyse Shorland 

It turns out inmates aren’t the only ones ones who want change in Alabama’s prison system.

At the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, where prisoners kicked off a coordinated strike on Sept. 9, corrections officers have also stopped showing up for work, sometimes in such large numbers it’s like they’re conducting a strike of their own.

On a recent Saturday shift, just two officers showed up to work at Holman, a maximum-security facility known by residents and employees by an ominous nickname: The Slaughterhouse. A full staff would normally be about 16 correctional officers, according to a spokesperson for the prison reached by VICE News.

Prison advocates are calling it a strike and at least one former corrections officer is calling it a protest. “You know, strike is a strong word,” said Timothy Curt Stidham, a former Holman correctional lieutenant. “But that’s really what they’re doing on their own terms: peaceful protest.”

The inmates and the corrections officers have remarkably similar concerns: overcrowding, understaffing, squalid conditions, low pay, and a dangerous work environment.

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow from the Free Alabama Movement, an inmate advocacy group, told VICE News that corrections officers were engaged in more of a protest than a strike at this point, but that they are trying to convey a clear message. “What they’re saying is, ‘We’re not striking with the inmates, but we’re agreeing with them that the administration is creating a hostile environment that puts all of us in danger,”” Glasgow said.

The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, another inmate advocacy group, has also framed corrections officers’ absences at Holman as an expression of protest.

Prison officials responding to VICE News disputed whether the alleged action was organized or whether it was happening at all. Robert Horton, the communications officer for Alabama’s Department of Corrections, called the whole thing a “nonfactual” narrative concocted by inmate advocacy groups.

“If we had an officer strike, we’d send out a press release,” Horton said. Local reports by AL.com said Horton confirmed large absences but stopped short of acknowledging them as a strike.

But Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley acknowledged that conditions at Holman are dangerous for corrections officers. “Alabama’s prison system is at a critical point,” Bentley said in a statement after touring Holman following inmate riots in March, during which a warden and a corrections officer were stabbed. “A volatile mix of overcrowding and understaffing has created an environment that is dangerous to both inmates as well as the corrections officers who serve our state.”  

The work slowdown comes as the Department of Justice recently announced an investigation into Alabama’s men’s prisons amid allegations of violence and sexual abuse in state facilities by other inmates and corrections officers. The investigation follows a similar probe by the department into Alabama’s prisons for women in 2014.

Stidham, a former Holman correctional lieutenant who was one of about a dozen who quit after the riots in March, said that while complaints over understaffing aren’t anything new, anger among officers recently ratcheted up after one of their colleagues was killed.

On Sept. 1, corrections officer Kenneth Bettis, a decorated veteran who served in Iraq, lay in a pool of his own blood on the dining room floor of Holman after he was stabbed by an inmate, The Huntsville Times reported. Two weeks later, Bettis succumbed to his injuries and died in a hospital bed in Mobile.

“Appropriate actions weren’t taken the day that Bettis died, and they’re still not being taken,” such as doing a sweep for knives and other weapons, Stidham said. “People are starting to realize the stresses of the job… These guys are scared.”

“We just witnessed a man lose his life, but we can’t go in [to search for weapons] by ourselves; there’s not enough of us,” he added. “You know there’s 50 to 100 knives in each dorm.”

He also says there’s an inadequate supply of handcuffs and pepper spray, and that officers  aren’t given radios or stab-proof jackets.

Prison officials can’t afford to fire officers from Holman, Stidham says, because the pool of applicants willing to work in such a dangerous facility is so small. Stidham, like many other officers, took “stress leave.” He says that prison officials threaten to fire corrections officers if they don’t come back after their leave of absence without appropriate paperwork, and that Holman staff are generally scared to come forward or speak to the media for fear of retaliation, such as losing their retirement money.

Alabama’s Correctional Organization, the state’s prison worker union, declined to comment for this story.

Mobile TV station WKRG obtained a four-page letter written by Holman corrections officers (without their names) explaining what went wrong in the days leading up to Bettis’s death.

In the letter, officers say there were no administrators on site when Bettis was stabbed, and note several other recent examples of understaffing, including on Saturday, Sept. 17, when they say there were 19 corrections officers to oversee an inmate population of 944.

They also say that the two vehicles and six supervising towers that are supposed to secure the perimeter of the prison are rarely staffed, contrary to Holman’s website.

Overcrowding and understaffing problems aren’t unique to Holman. Overall, Alabama’s prisons are at 178 percent over capacity, state records show. The statewide shortage of officers became so significant that in 2013 Alabama’s Department of Corrections paid $20.8 million in overtime — compared to $13 million on average over the four previous years, the Associated Press reported last year.

State records show that as of July 2016, Holman was at almost 150 percent over capacity, housing a surplus of 221 inmates. Holman also had only 71 correctional officers on staff, almost 43 percent fewer than the 166 personnel they are authorized to employ.

That means that each officer was responsible for about 11 inmates — compared to the national average, which is one officer to six inmates, according to the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

Since 1977, Alabama’s prison population has swelled by 840 percent. Today, Alabama has the third-highest incarceration rate in the country, according to federal statistics from 2014. And while incarceration rates overall are dropping, Alabama and Louisiana are the only states that have “consistently maintained above-average rates of incarceration,” rates that continue to grow, the Prison Policy Initiative reports.

“Over time, the number of inmates incarcerated in the system has increased, but the corrections budget has had trouble keeping up the increased need,” Gov. Bentley said in 2014.

Earlier this year, a major prison reform bill designed to alleviate overcrowding failed in the Alabama Legislature. The objective of the bill was to borrow $800 million to construct four “mega-prisons.” “This bill will help reduce overcrowding and will provide safer conditions for corrections officers as well as inmates within the facilities,” said Bentley. In August, after the bill failed, the governor said lawmakers should expect to see a revised version of the bill in the next year, the Times Daily reported.

Both Stidham and advocates within the Free Alabama Movement reject Bentley’s proposed solution to overcrowding. Earlier this year, inmates from Holman prison told WHNT, a TV station based in Huntsville, Alabama, that they hoped the bill’s failure would prompt the federal government to intervene and push reforms to lower the state’s incarceration rate.

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