Alabama sheriffs grapple with state prisoner backlog

Nearly 3,500 inmates are waiting in county jails to be processed into ADOC

Alabama sheriffs grapple with state prisoner backlog
Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham says county jails across the state are struggling to house state inmates waiting on ADOC intake. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - About 3,500 state prisoners are still waiting in county jails across the state to be processed into the Alabama Department of Corrections. Around 1,100 of them have been waiting for more than 30 days.

“A lot of sheriffs are really struggling,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham. “We’ve got sheriffs calling around trying to find other counties that will hold some of their inmates.”

The logjam is due to pandemic-related intake policies for the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Based on the current plan, ADOC moves 120 prisoners from jails to an intake facility for a two week quarantine. If anyone tests positive, it resets the clock for another two weeks. If the cohort remains healthy, they will be transitioned to their permanent correctional facility.

With this plan to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons, the maximum monthly intake is 240 prisoners. According to the Association of County Commissions, only five groups have gone through intake since March.

“My heart goes out to the commissioner and DOC, but at the same time I’ve got to think about this county, I think about my staff, and the workload that my staff is under,” Cunningham explained.

Cunningham also serves as the president of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association and says no jail has gone unaffected. While jails will be reimbursed for holding the prisoners through the CARES Act, they are also responsible for keeping their employees and jail population healthy.

For Cunningham, resources are thin. He’s already had more than 80 officers out with the virus, some of whom were hospitalized. That’s on top of being 50 officers short.

“Hazardous duty is just what it says - it’s hazardous duty,” the sheriff stated. “You’re bringing people in and you’re looking at people working not just 12 hour days, but some 16 hour days. When you lose 80-something people to go out on COVID-related issues, that’s a hard hit. Then you’re looking at having to bring people in on overtime to backfill those positions.”

Due to staffing challenges, Cunningham’s not been able to help his colleagues searching for additional space to hold their prisoners.

While jury trials haven’t been scheduled in Montgomery County, Cunningham realizes a grand jury will convene at some point. That which will trigger additional arrests.

“That’s coming right around the corner, so the dockets open back up and we start getting our grand juries to start back doing the things that they usually do. Our indictments will come out and we are going to see our numbers come up," Cunningham said. "That’s, again, one of the reasons why I can’t accept other inmates.”

The Alabama Association of County Commissions confirms ADOC has released 1,554 prisoners since March. While they’ve processed in 696 prisoners during that time, the overall prison population is down by more than 800.

“There’s a lot of discussions that we need to really start having on how we’re going to overcome this problem,” Cunningham added.

It’s unclear if any changes are coming to ADOC’s intake process. An ADOC spokesperson issued a statement saying in part, “due to the evolving and unpredictable nature of COVID-19, we cannot speculate about potential future changes to our modified intake processes.”

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