A state legislator openly expressed concern that there could be a federal takeover of Alabama’s prison system if corrections are not made at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
The concern was expressed at a meeting of the Joint Legislative Prison Committee held to discuss a U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections (NIC) report that found a multitude of problems at the prison, including a failure to report sexual abuse of inmates. The report was based on a three-day on-site assessment of cross-gender supervision at Tutwiler.
Alabama Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas requested the assessment months after the Montgomery-based nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative released a report that found Alabama Department of Corrections employees had illegal sexual contact with dozens of women at the Wetumpka facility. The group also said official responses to reports of abuse created an atmosphere of intimidation that discouraged future complaints.
Thomas began implementing new policies to take corrective action in December, about a month after the report, which found a culture of “intimidation and undue harshness” at the prison, was released. Since then, Thomas and his staff have developed an official action plan that directly addresses some of the issues in both reports.
State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said it’s important legislators show “political will” to start fixing some of the problems at Tutwiler and in other prisons in the state. He said the prison system is the most underfunded, overcrowded in the country.
Ward said the system is in jeopardy of being taken over by the federal government, and taking steps to make changes will help “fend off” future litigation.
“I think we’re going to make sure we hold the officials in the Department of Corrections accountable,” Ward said. “We have a definite issue at Tutwiler. The abuses are well documented.”
He said although there is an action plan, the Legislature has to provide oversight to make sure it’s carried out.
Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, said after reviewing the 30 issues summarized at the end of the NIC report, only seven had to do with budget constraints. He said the rest “dealt with management, people and responsibility,” and that staff should have been responsible for things such as making sure the hotlines used to report staff misconduct or sexual assault were working.
Farley asked Thomas to consider reopening investigations of staff members at the facility that were “swept under the rug.”
Thomas said he wasn’t opposed to the idea.
State Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, said part of the problem is that for decades in Alabama, political leaders have used calls for stricter punishment of criminals to get elected.
“Until we as a legislature deal with the reality of what’s happening, nothing is going to change,” she said.
Figures also said an NIC report should be done on all 28 of the state’s prison facilities, and that there are sexual assaults and inmate mistreatment in male prisons too. The reports can help political leaders and corrections staff decide the best way to make changes.
“We want to be proactive instead of reactive,” Ward said. “We don’t want to get into another situation like Tutwiler that bubbles over.”Scathing report on treatment of inmates: Legislator says feds could take over Tutwiler: Cam Ward says ‘abuses are well documented.