MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's parole agency plans to hold additional meetings to reduce a backlog of more than 8,000 requests for early release from the state's overcrowded prisons, officials said.

The pace of inmate releases slowed last year during the pandemic and a clampdown on paroles, and the new director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, Cam Ward, said the board wants to make sure everyone who is eligible for a hearing gets one “in the most efficient way possible.”

“We are willing to work as hard as possible to accomplish this goal,” said Ward, a former state legislator who took over from Charlie Graddick in December.

The Board of Pardons and Paroles, which normally considers requests for pardons and paroles three days a week, will hold extra hearings and use special dockets to review pardon requests, it said in a statement.

The board has a backlog of about 8,500 requests for pardons, said Gabrelle Simmons, head of operations.

Alabama prisons held about 21,000 inmates in November, the last time the Department of Corrections released statistics, but they were designed to hold about 12,400 people.

Graddick, a former state attorney general and circuit judge, resigned amid criticism that prisoner releases slowed during his tenure, and that Black people in particular were unfairly kept behind bars.

The board refused release to 90% of the inmates up for consideration in May during its first hearing following a monthslong suspension amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Justice Department filed suit in December against Alabama over conditions in prisons, alleging the state failed to protect male inmates from inmate-on-inmate violence and excessive force at the hands of prison staff.