When Jeff Dunn took the helm of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) in April 2015, things were not much different than they are today.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) was threatening the state with legal action, insisting the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Elmore County was violating the Constitution because of an alleged failure to protect inmates from sexual abuse and harassment by the male guards.
Meanwhile, there was pressure on the Legislature to do something to alleviate overcrowding; at the time, the body had been focused on maintaining level funding and prison reform.
Dunn was retiring after a 28-year career in the U.S. Air Force with the rank of colonel, stationed at Montgomery’s Maxwell Air Force Base. As a graduate of Birmingham-Southern College, he had Alabama roots, too.
It was an outside-the-box type of move for Gov. Robert Bentley, who was replacing then-ADOC Commissioner Kim Thomas.
Six years later, things have gotten worse. The DOJ is threatening moves that could result in an entire takeover of Alabama’s prisons by the federal government.
Gov. Kay Ivey, who has kept Dunn in place this entire time, pledged a fix during her inaugural address after winning the 2018 gubernatorial race.
“The status of our corrections system is an Alabama problem that must be solved by an Alabama solution,” she said. “As your governor, I plan to do so. We are revitalizing our statewide corrections system by replacing costly, at-risk prison facilities. This effort will ensure that Alabama stays committed to statewide prison reform, and we will be announcing more detailed plans in the coming days.”
It has been 842 days since she gave that speech. There is a plan, but the details are sketchy at best.
Nearly two months after Dunn assumed his role as commissioner, the DOJ and the ADOC reached an agreement on Tutwiler. That resolution is heralded as a potential fix for this situation.
However, the DOJ is not moving as fast during these early stages of the Biden administration. With precious few moments left in the 2021 regular legislative session, the onus is on Ivey to act.
While we cannot completely rule out a successful, 11th-hour attempt by the legislative branch of state government to pass a bill that prescribes a solution, it is time for the executive branch under Ivey to start making some moves.
One of those moves should be for new leadership at ADOC. The Jeff Dunn experiment has not worked out.
Almost every day some report surfaces demonstrating the deplorable conditions within the 15 facilities managed by the ADOC.
Former Birmingham TV journalist Beth Shelburne, now with the ACLU of Alabama, frequently interviews inmates. One of those inmates recently told Shelburne there were more drugs in his prison facility than in downtown Birmingham.
“They are bringing it in by the kilo,” he said, according to Shelburne.
The man told her drug testing was no longer a regular thing and speculated it was part of an effort to drive down numbers while the agency was under the scrutiny of the DOJ.
Last year, State Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, likened the untenable situation to troubled college athletic programs under the scrutiny of the NCAA.
“Lack of institutional control,” he called it in an op-ed.
At the time, Simpson also called for Dunn’s ouster.
It is not wholly Dunn’s fault; he inherited a bad situation. You cannot blame one person.
Some of the blame goes to the governor and some lawmakers who have failed to act satisfactorily on this issue for decades.
Those roles are filled through elections. Their failures are directly on the voting public, but Dunn’s is not.
His program is not working. He is the 3-7 head football coach with a program that is facing down the barrel of NCAA sanctions.
It is not about blame. It is about recognizing this situation is not functioning as it was designed. It is time for something new, and Dunn should go.
Regardless of your ideological view on corrections — be it on the side of some bleeding-heart approach or if you are of the mindset that you do the crime, you have to do the time — it is hard to disagree with the notion things are not working.
Given Ivey’s go-it-alone plan appears to be crumbling under its own weight (banks are reluctant to finance for-profit prison proposals), watch the Legislature in the waning days of the 2021 session.
A plausible path forward is for the Legislature to introduce financing for a new and improved effort at the last minute and rush it through before the opposition has an opportunity to get organized.
Should it get to the governor’s desk, it might be unpopular, but it could be overshadowed by gambling and reapportionment.
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