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Alabama DOC Agrees to Protect Women Prisoners from Systemic Sexual Abuse, Harassment

Alabama DOC Agrees to Protect Women Prisoners from Systemic Sexual Abuse, Harassment

by David M. Reutter

The State of Alabama has agreed to implement reforms designed to protect prisoners at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women from what investigators with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) described as a “toxic, sexualized environment” that led to persistent violations of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights due to “unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse and harassment.” The agreement settles a federal lawsuit filed by the DOJ against Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).

The settlement, entered in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on May 28, 2015, reaffirms the ADOC’s commitment to enforce the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and “to comply with ADOC’s written policies and procedures mandating zero tolerance toward all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment.”

To help monitor the behavior of prison guards, the ADOC installed a “state of the art camera system” at Tutwiler with video cameras “strategically placed to maximize supervision while protecting” prisoners’ privacy, according to the settlement agreement. The settlement also requires unannounced inspections by supervisors to prevent misconduct by guards. Further, the ADOC agreed to step up efforts to recruit female guards at the facility and implement training programs designed to “ensure that all staff have the adequate knowledge, skill, and ability to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse and sexual harassment at Tutwiler.”

“Prisoners are entitled to be safe from sexual predation by staff, and to live in an environment free from sexual assault, sexual harassment and the constant fear of these abuses,” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said in a press release. “Our agreement uses gender-responsive and trauma-informed principles designed to address and eliminate the culture of abuse that Tutwiler’s women prisoners have suffered from and endured for years.”

“The issues at Tutwiler are not new, but our focus over the last three years has been to address them, ensuring the facility is a safe place for both inmates and staff,” Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said in a May 28, 2015 statement. “I am proud of the reforms we have made at Tutwiler, and I know we have more to do.”

Pursuant to its settlement with the DOJ, the state pledged to “promptly, thoroughly and objectively” investigate complaints of staff sexual abuse, protect prisoners and employees from retaliation when reporting abuse, and prosecute offenders rather than discipline them through administrative means such as sanctioned resignations or reassignment to other positions or facilities. The ADOC also agreed to offer victims of sexual abuse and harassment “timely, unimpeded access to medical treatment and crisis intervention services.”

“We very much appreciate the state’s cooperation and willingness to work to bring about meaningful and sustainable change on these important issues,” said U.S. Attorney George L. Beck, Jr. of the Middle District of Alabama. He noted that Alabama’s willingness to enter into the settlement agreement “eliminates the expense of a protracted lawsuit and offers women immediate protections.”

As part of the state’s commitment to reform, the ADOC created the agency-level position of Deputy Commissioner of Women’s Services and appointed Dr. Wendy Williams to the post on April 16, 2014, to “ensure that major changes were taking place” and oversee “long overdue culture change” at Tutwiler, as well as to monitor conditions at the Montgomery Women’s Facility and Birmingham Work Release Center.

Among other provisions, the settlement also requires the ADOC to develop “policies and procedures regarding the management of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming inmates,” including gender-responsive classification. Further, Tutwiler officials must ensure that women prisoners are supplied with hygiene and feminine hygiene products, including tampons and pads at no cost, and the facility will designate a full-time PREA Compliance Manager.

An independent monitor, Jennie Lancaster, was jointly selected to review and assess the ADOC’s progress on implementing the extensive changes. She will “have full and complete access to Tutwiler and its records, and all staff of Tutwiler will be directed to cooperate fully with the monitor.” Monitoring fees and expenses will be paid by the state.

The settlement agreement capped months of negotiations between DOJ and Alabama officials following a January 17, 2014 DOJ findings letter and report, issued pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1997, that determined “women prisoners at Tutwiler suffer serious harm from sexual abuse and sexual harassment by staff, including rape, fondling, voyeurism, and sexually explicit verbal abuse.”

The DOJ’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in conjunction with the settlement, said the ADOC had “allowed a sexualized environment to exist at Tutwiler, such that sexual abuse and sexual harassment are constant.” Additionally, the complaint stated the defendants “effectively deny women prisoners the ability to report sexual abuse and sexual harassment,” and “retaliate against women who attempt to report” such abuse – for example, routinely placing prisoners in segregation where they “face threats of physical assault by staff.”

When Tutwiler opened in 1942 it was designed to hold 417 prisoners; it housed 928 on April 14, 2013, the final day of a four-day DOJ on-site inspection that involved interviews with prisoners and staff as well as a review of documents at the facility.

“For nearly two decades Tutwiler staff have harmed women in their care with impunity by sexually abusing and sexually harassing them,” the DOJ report declared. “Staff have raped, sodomized, fondled, and exposed themselves to prisoners. They have coerced prisoners to engage in oral sex. Staff engage in voyeurism, forcing women to disrobe and watching them while they use the shower and use the toilet. Staff sexually harass women, subjecting them to a daily barrage of sexually explicit verbal abuse.”

Investigators also found that ADOC officials took no action to correct the many problems at Tutwiler despite knowing about them for years. For example, the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2007 that the facility had “the highest rate of sexual assaults in the nation” for a women’s prison. [See, e.g.: PLN, Oct. 2013, p.26].

While ADOC officials took issue with the January 2014 report, the DOJ expressed confidence in its findings. “Internal incident and investigation reports, external organizations’ reports, and interviews of current and former staff corroborate many prisoner allegations,” the DOJ noted. “Further, the internal corroboration of prisoner reports has been unprecedented: multiple women over the period of several years with no opportunity or basis to collaborate told a markedly similar story, often with similar details or repeat perpetrators.”

When the DOJ’s findings letter was made public, Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, called it a “serious indictment of these conditions of confinement that exist at the Tutwiler Prison for Women and it calls into serious question whether there’s a need for fundamental reform within the Department of Corrections specifically related to sexual abuse and misconduct at Tutwiler.”

“I think it’s a very thorough and troubling set of findings that ought to warrant a very significant response from the governor and the department to immediately remediate these very serious problems at Tutwiler,” he added at the time.

The ADOC’s settlement agreement with the Department of Justice is, at least, a good start – though one that is long overdue. See: United States v. State of Alabama, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:15-cv-00368-MHT-TFM.


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Related legal case

United States v. State of Alabama