Alabama prison commissioner stepping down from troubled department

FILE - Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn speaks during a news conference with Gov. Robert Bentley at Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Ala., Monday April 4, 2016. (Bob Gathany/The Huntsville Times via AP, File)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn is stepping down after six years leading the troubled system that faces a Justice Department lawsuit over prison conditions, the governor's office announced Tuesday.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said she is appointing John Hamm, the current deputy secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, as the state's next corrections commissioner. Hamm will take over on Jan. 1.

"I have said before that Commissioner Dunn has a thankless job, but I am proud that he has led with the utmost integrity. He has helped lay the groundwork that I now look forward to building upon with John Hamm at the helm," Ivey said in a statement.

Dunn was appointed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley in 2015 to lead the troubled prison system. A retired Air Force colonel, Dunn had no experience in corrections, but Bentley said he would bring a fresh perspective to the department. He remained in the position under Ivey.

During his tenure, Dunn sought additional funding to hire and retain corrections officers and helped lead the push under two administrations for prison construction. Lawmakers this year approved a plan to tap pandemic relief funds to help pay the costs of building two new super-size prisons and renovating other facilities.

But his tenure also saw an ongoing prison violence crisis - at least partly fueled by the ongoing staffing shortage- and mounting troubles for the department.

The Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit against Alabama last year, saying state lockups were among the deadliest in the nation and that inmates face unconstitutional levels of "prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence." The Justice Department state officials have been deliberately indifferent to the problem.

"In the two and a half years following the United States' original notification to the State of Alabama of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, prisoners at Alabama's Prisons for Men have continued daily to endure a high risk of death, physical violence, and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners," the DOJ wrote in an updated complaint filed last month. It was signed by Attorney General Merrick Garland.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in 2017 ruled that Alabama's psychiatric care of state inmates is so "horrendously inadequate" that it violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

State Rep. Chris England, who has long called for Dunn's removal, said this was an opportunity to take the department in a new direction.

He said leadership change is also needed at the parole board.

Ivey's office said Hamm has more than 35 years of experience in law enforcement and includes time working in corrections at both the state and local levels.

"I will work diligently with the men and women of DOC to fulfill Governor Ivey's charge of solving the issues of Alabama's prison system," Hamm said in a statement released by the governor's office.