By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

Correctional Officers (from ADOC website)

Alabama’s prison staffing crisis has an outsized role in the violence and record number of deaths seen across the state’s prisons, most everyone agrees. New data obtained by Appleseed shows yet another reason prison staffing remains dangerously low: the large number of terminated prison employees – 366 Department of Corrections staff fired from January 2018 to November 2023.

The list includes only people fired from the department, not retirements or resignations, and was provided following a records request by Appleseed. Among the 366, at least 19 had been charged with work-related crimes, including contraband and assaulting incarcerated people with batons, for striking an incarcerated man “in the facial area with an open hand and push[ing] the inmate into a wall,” and for hitting another incarcerated man on the jaw with a closed fist “requiring surgery for his injury,” according to court records. 

Still another former prison worker was charged with assault for causing injury to an incarcerated man by “kicking and/or punching him” and two officers were arrested in May 2022 and charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of 27-year-old Jason Kirkland, who was found dead after he became stuck inside his cell’s small metal door used to pass food through and asphyxiated. 

An officer was arrested in May 2022 and charged with multiple crimes in connection with allegedly attempting to smuggle marijuana inside a frozen Poweraid bottle into Fountain Correctional Facility. Another officer was arrested in February 2020 after attempting to bring seven ounces of marijuana, three ounces of meth, two knives and other contraband into Fountain prison. That officer was convicted in federal court and was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison. 

But those 19 former ADOC employees charged with work-related crimes don’t come close to painting the entire picture of corruption and violence at the hands of ADOC employees; many former ADOC officers and staff quit before they’re fired, as Appleseed’s review of court records showed. Records for a former officer charged with assault for allegedly beating a man with a baton at Donaldson Correctional Facility in 2021 showed that two other former officers were also charged with assault in that incident, but those two officers weren’t listed by ADOC as having been fired during that time. Additionally, challenges with securing evidence and witnesses for incidents that occur in a correctional setting result in corrupt staff getting quietly pushed out the door rather than criminally prosecuted.

Equal Justice Initiative notes that, “since 2019, EJI has identified at least 89 ADOC employees who have been criminally charged or administratively sanctioned for misconduct within Alabama prisons. In 30 of these cases, the offending officers were supervisors.”

In one case, a lieutenant with 20 years experience attacked Victor Russo, a 60-year-old incarcerated man, who later died.  Mohammad Jenkins, who was a shift commander at Donaldson Correctional Facility, pleaded guilty to using excessive force on Russo, then lying afterwards to cover up his abuse, according to the United States Department of Justice. “Specifically, on Feb. 16, 2022, Jenkins willfully deprived inmate V.R. of his right to be free from excessive force by kicking him, hitting him, spraying him with chemical spray, striking him with a can of chemical spray and striking him with a shoe, while V.R. was restrained inside of a holding cell and not posing a threat,” the DOJ stated. 

ADOC’s staffing problems, which have been a driver of the violence and death inside Alabama’s prisons, have plagued ADOC for decades, and recent court orders to improve have gone unanswered. From December 2017 until Sept. 30, 2020, the state showed an increase of just 25 officers over nearly two years, which was less than 1.5 percent of a judge’s order to add 2,000 correctional officers by February 2022, and the staffing problem has only worsened. ADOC’s quarterly reports show total security staffing fell from 2,102 in December 2021 to 1,763 by September 2023, even after massive recruiting efforts, pay raises and incentives. 

Violence could lead to early releases

Despite such a significant number of terminations, the assaultive and criminal behavior by ADOC officers keeps occurring. Now, violence against incarcerated people in Alabama is leading lawyers to request early release based on the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) inability to keep people in its custody safe.

This month, a grand jury indicted Limestone Correctional officers Samuel Dial and Jesse Cobb with felony assault for what court records allege is the beating of a 74-year-old incarcerated man in the head with a “broom handle.” Less than two weeks later, the man’s attorney on Feb. 21 filed a motion asking the court to reconsider releasing his client early because of the assault. Hospital records attached to the filing show the man suffered an intracranial hemorrhage and an abrasion to his left arm. 

The two officers remained employed by ADOC as of Friday were working at “non-contact posts” pending the outcome of ADOC’s criminal investigation, the department told Appleseed.

Despite signs of repeated, unlawful behavior by one man long before this episode, he remained a law enforcement officer at the ADOC. That officer,  Jesse Cobb, has been arrested four times since 2013, charged twice with driving under the influence, once for leaving the scene of an accident and twice for public intoxication. 

The earliest of Cobb’s DUI charges was dismissed for reasons court records do not make clear. Cobb in August 2014 pleaded guilty to a separate DUI charge in which court records state he was driving his motorcycle drunk and told the arresting officer “I work for the department of corrections.” The arresting officer in his notes said that Cobb was “using his job to establish dominance.” Cobb received a 180 day suspended jail sentence and was ordered to attend DUI school. The 2014 was later appealed and the charge dropped by the City of Athens, court records show. 

Cobb in July 2018 pleaded guilty to public intoxication and received a $50 fine plus court costs, and he was again arrested in January 2022 and charged with leaving the scene of an accident, public intoxication and failure to report an accident. Court records state he crashed into a guardrail, left the scene and the next day met with a state trooper and said he left the scene “because he was drunk.” Cobb pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and to public intoxication and received a one year suspended jail sentence and two years unsupervised probation. 

“You’re just making your problem bigger, in a new building.”

Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas, told Appleseed that the staffing problem itself can result in officers breaking the law. 

“In a low staffed environment, officers are more likely to want to make deals with incarcerated people to try to keep the peace there. So it’s like, Oh, I’ll bring you in some contraband,” Deitch said. “And then there’s also the fact that low staffing allows more bad things to happen inside: Not enough people to notice that staff are bringing in contraband.” 

Appleseed regularly receives videos from inside prisons showing open drug use, assaults, injured and dying people and with no officers in sight. 

ADOC did raise pay for correctional officers and trainees last year, but Deitch said it’s a mistake to think that it’s solely a salary issue. “Counterintuitively it’s better to raise the standards for what it takes to be an officer, raise the educational level, raise the age, raise what kind of things you’re looking for,” Deitch said. “Because then it makes the job more appealing to the kind of people you actually would want to have working there.”

The most important change ADOC could make to improve hiring, she said, is to improve prison conditions, and proponents of Alabama’s new under-construction $1.08 billion prison say that’s what’s needed to fix the state’s deadly prison crisis, but Deitch cautioned about placing all bets on that new prison building. 

“Building a new building doesn’t do anything about the culture. This is a system that has a very dysfunctional culture. It’s a culture that supports violence. It’s a culture that supports the bringing in of contraband. Breaking of rules. All sorts of violations, and unless you change that culture, the new building isn’t going to do anything,” Deitch said. “You’re just making your problem bigger, in a new building.”

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