National media takes note of Tutwiler troubles

Published 9:09am Monday, March 10, 2014

For many years sub-standard housing and overcrowding have been associated with Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka. But in the past two years the prison’s name has increasingly become synonymous with sexual abuse, physical intimidation, violence, humiliation and degradation against inmates.

And that reputation has garnered the attention of not only media outlets across the state, but nationwide.

A Feb. 25 story by VICE said, “these women are totally vulnerable, not only to the guards but to each other. They’re zoo animals on display … Sure, prisons are notoriously horrible especially throughout the South, but Julia Tutwiler seems to have a uniquely savage reputation.”

According to another article – published March 1 in both the New York Times and the Boston Globe – “For a female inmate, there are few places worse” than Tutwiler. “Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison for at least years,” it continued.

A March 3 piece in Cosmopolitan calls “this prison in Alabama hell on earth for women.”

It also adds that women sent to prison expect to miss their families, to encounter pushy prison guards and even get into altercations with other inmates, “But few expect to be repeatedly sexually assaulted, beaten and psychologically abused at the hands of the prison staff. This has been the horrific reality for the women serving time at Julia Tutwiler.”

The spark which ignited the growing conflagration surrounding the facility was a 38-page report released by the National Institute of Corrections in November 2012. The findings of that report documented numerous instances of sexual misconduct and mistreatment of prisoners by staff, dating back nearly two decades.

In January 2013 representatives of the Alabama Department of Corrections pledged to actively work to ferret out and correct such issues using an action plan based on the NIC report and 58 items that were listed as needing correction.

On Jan. 22, The Wetumpka Herald reported on a 36-page letter from the Department of Justice to Gov. Robert Bentley concluding Tutwiler is operating in violation of the U.S. Constitution, denying the inmates their Eighth Amendment rights.

“These problems have been festering for years, and are well known to Alabama prison officials,” said Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.

The letter listed specific instances in which officers required inmates to engage in sexual acts in exchange for basic sanitary supplies and referenced prisoner complaints concerning male corrections officers watching inmates shower or use the toilet.

“We have never downplayed the significant and serious nature of these allegations,” said Thomas. “I do not, however, agree that Tutwiler is operating in a deliberately indifferent or unconstitutional manner. We will cooperate with the Department of Justice and continue our efforts to implement changes and recommendations with the goal of improving prison conditions and avoiding potential contested litigation.”

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