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Women Prisoners in Alabama Win Preliminary Injunctive Relief

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama granted a motion for a preliminary injunction after a group of female prisoners complained that the state operated the women's prisons in an unconstitutionally unsafe manner.

The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women is located in Wetumpka, Alabama, about 115 miles south of Birmingham. The Edwina Mitchell Work Release Center stands a few hundred feet away. The Birmingham Work Release Center is located in Birmingham.

Fifteen women who were variously housed in these three prisons filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 where they complained that conditions for female prisoners in the Alabama State Prison System violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Plaintiffs brought their suit on behalf of all Alabama state prisoners.

The defendants are then-Governor Don Siegelman, former Department of Corrections Commissioner Michael Haley, Tutwiler's warden Gladys Deese, Mitchell's acting warden Patricia Hood, and Birmingham Director Mary Carter.

In support of their complaint, the prisoner-plaintiffs alleged that overcrowding, inadequate supervision, improper classification, violence, availability of weapons, the small number of segregation cells, insufficient living space, and inadequate ventilation were conditions which existed at Tutwiler. Prisoners further alleged that conditions at Mitchell included overcrowding, inadequate supervision, insufficient living space, and inadequate ventilation. At Birmingham, plaintiffs complained of conditions of inadequate ventilation and inadequate supervision of the tiny segregation unit.

Plaintiffs further complained that defendants have been deliberately indifferent to these conditions and to the serious risks. posed to prisoners, all in violation of the rights and protections of the Eighth Amendment.

In response to plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction to abate these conditions, the court held evidentiary hearings in September-October 2002 and conducted site visits to Tutwiler and Mitchell. Thereafter, the court issued its preliminary injunction only with respect to overcrowding and understaffing at Tutwiler. The court denied preliminary injunctive relief for Mitchell and Birmingham and for Tutwiler in all other respects.


Tutwiler became operational in 1942. It was designed to house a maximum of 364 prisoners with a total security staff of 90 guards. By 2002, Tutwiler's population had climbed to 1017 prisoners while the security staff had increased only to 92.

Today, the facility comprises ten dorms, two medical isolation units for HIV+ prisoners, 21 segregation cells for violent and protective custody prisoners, and a few death row cells for condemned women.

In each Tutwiler dorm, bunk beds, are arranged in rows so close together that prisoners can lie on their beds, reach out their arms, and touch other prisoners.

While the parties agree that adequate staffing is an absolute necessity, the evidence showed that Tutwiler is seriously understaffed. Warden Deese had requested an additional 58 guards to satisfy basic security needs but budgetary constraints were cited as the reason for denial of her request. Meanwhile, guards were assigned to work overtime to compensate for the security staff shortages. On some days in July 2002, 100% of the on-duty guards were working overtime.

Plaintiffs further alleged that the classification system was inadequate. Upon arrival, a prisoner is housed in Dorm 8 until she is classified, then moved to appropriate housing. Because of the shortage of available beds, however, prisoners are often mishoused with aggressive, mentally ill prisoners who are temporarily placed in general population dorms.

The availability of weapons also contributed to the problems at Tutwiler. Ordinary objects such as broom and mop handles, combination locks in socks, and disassembled safety razors could all be used as weapons.

The evidence revealed that violence was a significant problem at Tutwiler. In May 2002, Tutwiler had the highest prisoner assault rate of all prisons in Alabama including the male prisons.

Tutwiler has only 21 segregation cells, 13 of which are occupied by prisoners sentenced to life without parole. Only eight cells are available to house violent or troublesome prisoners-less than 1% of Tutwiler's population.

Prisoners also complained of extreme heat in summer and lack of an adequate ventilation system. Hot weather rules call for the distribution of ice, additional opportunities to shower, and increased access to drinking water when the air temperature rises above 90°F. Inexplicably, Tutwiler has no instruments to measure air temperature so the officials claimed there was no way to know when the hot weather rules should be followed.

Mitchell and Birmingham

A prisoner who is eligible for work release will be sent to Mitchell or Birmingham. At the time of the hearing in 2002, Mitchell had a capacity of 260 prisoners with a population of 242. Birmingham had a capacity of 312 prisoners with a population of 285. The court found no evidence that either Mitchell or Birmingham was overcrowded or unsafe.

At Mitchell, prisoners are housed in open dorms which are not equipped with air handlers. Defendants asked the court to believe they had no way to monitor temperature or humidity. Unlike Tutwiler, however, prisoners at Mitchell are free to move in and out of the dorms to get fresh air.

At Birmingham, prisoners complained that the 4-person segregation cell was too hot and inadequately supervised. On July 27, 2002, a prisoner in the cell died. The log showed that half-hourly cell checks had not been made. A report of the incident was not written until August 24, 2002.

The Birmingham facility is equipped with central air conditioning. In July 2002, however, conditions became so uncomfortable that prisoners made anonymous complaints to the Department of Health. In response, Director Carter turned off the air conditioning. Thereafter, Deputy Corrections Commissioner Glen Newton told prisoners that Carter would restart the air conditioning but should any more complaints be made, the air conditioning would be turned off.

The Preliminary Injunction

To obtain preliminary injunctive relief, the court required plaintiffs to show that prison conditions violated the protections of the Eighth Amendment. Plaintiffs were further required to show that defendants were knowingly and unreasonably disregarding an intolerable risk of harm.

While the lack of ventilation and the oppressive heat were viewed as serious issues, the court found insufficient evidence to show that these issues rose to the level of a constitutional violation.

Regarding living space at Tutwiler, plaintiffs had relied on American Correctional Association (ACA) standards. The court pointed out that ACA standards are a guide and are not determinative in a constitutional sense.

On the other issues at Tutwiler, the court agreed with defendants that the plaintiffs' allegations of overcrowding, open dorms, inadequate supervision, improper classification, violence, availability of weapons, and the small number of segregation cells were not sufficiently serious, when considered separately and alone, to support a finding of unconstitutionality.

In a refreshing and insightful reliance on Wilson v. Seiter, (111 SCt 2321 (1991)), however, the court held that it was the combination of substantial overcrowding and significantly inadequate supervision in the Tutwiler dorms that deprived prisoners of their right to be free from the threat of violence. Moreover, other circumstances such as improper classification, access to weapons, lack of segregation cells, poor ventilation, and summer heat combined to exacerbate the problems and satisfy the objective component of Eighth Amendment violations at Tutwiler. The court did not reach the same conclusion with respect to Mitchell and Birmingham.

Defendants argued that fiscal limitations had prevented them from taking steps to abate the conditions at Tutwiler. Unpersuaded, the court admonished the defendants saying that fiscal limitations are not an adequate defense to a state's failure to redress a constitutional violation.

The court concluded that plaintiffs were entitled to preliminary injunctive relief on their claim of substantial risk of serious harm caused by Tutwiler's overcrowded and understaffed dorms. Plaintiffs were not entitled to preliminary relief at Mitchell or Birmingham nor were they entitled to preliminary relief at Tutwiler in any other respect.

The court ordered defendants to fashion appropriate injunctive relief and, within 4 weeks, submit a plan that immediately and fairly addressed the unconstitutionally unsafe conditions caused by overcrowding and understaffing at Tutwiler. See Laube vs. Haley, 234 F. Supp. 2d 1227 (MD AL 2002).

On December 2, 2002, Judge Myron H. Thompson of the U.S. District Court for the middle district of Alabama preliminarily enjoined defendants from continuing to operate the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in an unconstitutionally unsafe manner.

Defendants were ordered to file a plan to immediately correct the unconstitutional conditions at Tutwiler and, on December 30, 2002, defendants filed their proposed plan to which plaintiffs responded on January,15, 2003.

Following oral arguments, the court found the defendants' plan deficient in two substantial respects. First, defendants asked the court to prohibit the transfer of female prisoners from county jails to Tutwiler. The court pointed out that under 18 U.S.C. §3626, et seq, it is without authority to do so.

Second, as defendants' counsel stated during oral arguments, "the problem is, we've run out of money, pure and simple." The court replied, "budgetary concerns are not a defense to constitutional violations."

Defendants were ordered to submit by February 7, 2003, a new plan which corrects the two deficiencies. See: Laube v. Haley, 242 F. Supp. 2d 1150 (MD AL 2003).

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Related legal case

Laube vs. Haley