I’ve mentioned before that I have been a nurse for over 24 years. Currently I work in the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).
You may have heard of the recent DOJ report on violence in the ADOC system. Unfortunately, I feel this report falls far short of an accurate picture because of all that it neglects to mention. It does reveal that ADOC experiences far more violent instances than the next most violent prison system. However, the DOJ report mentions only prisoner-on-prisoner violence. It does not mention officer-on-prisoner or prisoner-on-officer violence.
The DOJ report also makes recommendations for curbing the violence in ADOC facilities such as increasing the number of officers.
Where the report truly falls short is expressing where the violence stems from in the majority of cases. Speaking from first hand experience, what I can tell you is that the majority of violent incidents are related to drug use and traffic inside the prison system.
This brings up an obvious question which nobody seems to want to address. This is a prison system. So, how do drugs even get into the prisons? The answer should be just as obvious as the question.
At some prisons, all personnel are checked on entering the facility. At others like the prison I currently work at, checks are random. Nurses get “shaken down” or dogs sniff your vehicle before entering. Since I began here a year ago, no nurse has been caught smuggling in an illicit substance. Tales of years past persist and I’ve never heard any stories of a nurse smuggling in drugs. Not saying it doesn’t happen, just that it is exceedingly rare. In an environment where drug use is rampant, every hour of day and night, no nurse or visitor would be capable of smuggling a quantity of drugs sufficient to add 1% to the amount of drugs flowing through a single prison facility. Visitations are monitored by officers, visitors are checked before entering. Medical personnel encounters with inmates are supposed to be monitored by officers at all times, partly for the safety of medical personnel.
Shortly after entering the ADOC system I learned how low the pay for officers is. They have good benefits but pay is not very high. Which led me to notice something. The vehicles in the parking lot. While nurses are paid higher than officers, most of us drive pretty standard, sometimes older, vehicles with no exorbitant price range. Yet many officers drive sports cars or large trucks with much higher price tags.
That’s not saying anything against officers who work a lot of overtime, multiple jobs or have retirement from prior careers, such as military. This is not uncommon. Others have spouses who bring in an additional income to their household.
Yet there are a large number of officers who drive expensive vehicles, work minimal overtime while driving expensive vehicles which most nurses say they could not afford easily.
Recently an officer at one local prison was charged with drug trafficking inside the prison and bail was reportedly set at $1.5 million. One of the biggest problems with this case is that the officer had worked at the same facility for several years. Verbal reports claim he was caught with nearly 2 lbs of artificial marijuana, which has been linked to numerous medical complications, chest pain and altered levels of consciousness.
What is worse is that drug dealing in the prison system leads to violent altercations for drug debt or suspicion of inmates being informants. In some cases, officers have been assaulted and severely injured. For a corrections officer to be witness to the consequences of drug traffic in the prisons, including the danger to their own fellow officers, is inexcusable. Stabbings are fairly common and deaths definitely occur, either from assault or directly due to the substance involved.
The further questions which should be raised regard how many other officers have been or are currently involved in such drug trafficking. Are there supervisors further up the chain with awareness, yet allow it to continue because they share in the profits?
Many modern drugs in the prison system are harder to detect than in decades past. These drugs can incite completely mindless violent behavior. A popular one is Flakka, which has been heard of in cases like one in Florida where a man tried to eat another man’s face off. Many are synthetic. Meaning formulations and forms can change from one lab or supplier to another. This also means they are higher risk. One never knows what chemicals are being pumped into a person’s body. These drugs can have unpredictable effects on the mind, while causing possible permanent damage to internal organs and the brain.
If an inmate suffers permanent damage which renders them permanently disabled, that leaves the taxpayer holding the bill for their support and medical care for the rest of their lives, even if they are released from the prison system. The same is true of injuries from violent incidents.
So this is an issue which affects all of us in the state of Alabama because the price will continue to accumulate and increase year after year. Even without permanent disabilities, the cost of acute medical care is massive, costing tens of millions per year. For rural prison sites, medical emergencies warrant frequent helicopter flights for transport, which costs the taxpayer roughly $40,000 for just one single transport.
Meanwhile, the level of violence and risks involved make it difficult to recruit corrections officers. The legislature acts as though throwing money at the problem will fix it. That will not work. They just decreased the pay raise for existing officers this year. For good officers who have spent years in the system, what effect will it have if new officers are hired in at higher pay than the veteran officers? Yet even new officers understand that the violence is not worth the risk. What good is money if you’re dead?
The known sources of violence must be addressed before anything will improve. For that, it really requires investigation and coordination with external agencies. ADOC and our legislature should request assistance from the DEA to go into the prisons and root out the sources of drugs flowing into the system.
I have already written before that the prison population needs to be reduced. Drug addiction should be treated as an illness rather than a crime. Treating addiction as an illness costs far less than incarceration. The average cost of incarceration in AL is $57 per day. If we spent $10–15 on treatment per day, the cost would plummet. If cannabis were legalized, the cost would be even less and would create jobs which would increase tax revenue.
I will be honest and state that even writing this could well place me in extreme personal danger, not only while at work but away from work as well. That risk is only minimized by the fact that the DOJ report has already shown a spotlight on the violence issue in the system, so more attention is being leveled at the problem. The risk involved is probably why nobody openly even asks the questions or state the obvious as I am doing here. Yet the other thing which decreases my risk is publicly raising awareness. Once published, there is no taking it back. The questions cannot be un-asked, the information cannot be erased. Then again, retaliation is always a possibility.
A copy of this article will be forwarded to multiple media sources, along with multiple elected officials. I will post information of any responses I may receive on the subject. Let’s see if they can do anything but spend money and point fingers.