Religious volunteer services restricted at Limestone Correctional Facility due to understaffing

WAFF's Megan Plotka reporting.
Published: Apr. 11, 2023 at 11:18 AM CDT
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LIMESTONE Co., Ala. (WAFF) - Staffing issues at Limestone Correctional Facility are keeping many volunteers out of the facility, according to a longtime volunteer.

Dr. Chris Brown used to volunteer to lead religious services in Alabama’s largest prison every month, now he can hardly go inside to lend a hand. Dr. Brown and other volunteers led monthly services until the pandemic hit in 2020. Safety precautions pushed anyone who wasn’t a guard or incarcerated out.

Prisons eventually lifted several precautions, but the volunteer sessions were still put on pause because of inadequate staffing, according to Dr. Brown. There weren’t enough guards to coordinate large religious services. During some sessions, they could have about 75 people in the chapel.

Dr. Brown said these sessions can be a lifeline for people serving long sentences in the Limestone Correctional Facility, and it’s a huge loss.

“It just changes the whole atmosphere of the prison when you have a program you know so two, three, four weeks afterward seems like everything’s just a little lighter inside,” Dr. Brown said. “It really has that large impact on them. The individuals are constantly telling us just how much it means for us to be able to just come inside and for us to be able to minister to them even for a little while.”

After a change in prison leadership in 2022, Dr. Brown said they were allowed back in, but it didn’t last long. Volunteers were turned away the next month because of understaffing and the back-and-forth lasted a few months until the warden indefinitely suspended the program in August 2022.

Several months later, the tides changed again. Prison leadership brought the program back, but with more restrictions.

They allowed only five volunteers to enter rather than the usual 15. Plus, they moved the sessions from the evenings to weekday mornings so many volunteers, like Dr. Brown, could no longer make it because they are at work.

“The atmosphere has been a lot worse,” Dr. Brown said. “The pandemic was very difficult for them. And then some of the other things, like the short staffing just means that there’s not as much protection as far as officers maintaining order. Some of the stories I’ve heard from guys who got out in January and February are just horrific, things that I won’t repeat on camera.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) emailed the following statement to WAFF:

“Access to any ADOC facility is determined on a case-by-case basis by officials at that facility. Numerous factors go into these decisions, and they are made with the safety and security of the officers, inmates, and visitors in mind.”

Dr. Brown said there are several solutions to this problem. He thinks prison guards should be paid more for their labor. He also thinks there are several structural solutions such as:

  • Make the repealing of the habitual offender law retroactive, freeing 300 to 500 non-violent prisoners from Limestone Correctional Facility
  • Take some of ADOC’s funding and put it towards mental health services to push people toward resources instead of prison time if they need it
  • Invest more into re-entry services

“If you give some of these inmates more support when they leave prison the first time we can avoid this revolving door that we have and not have as much recidivism and then ultimately reducing the load on the whole system if you do that,” Dr. Brown said.

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