By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
The Legislature’s Joint Prison Oversight Committee held a meeting at the Statehouse on Wednesday to review the policies and procedures which insure that inmate’s complaints are heard and safely reported.
“We wanted the Commissioner to give us a detailed breakdown of the policies and procedures that deal with situation like the allegation made at Tutwiler,” said Co-chairman of the Joint Prison Committee, Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster).
The allegations Ward was referring to were made by The Equal Justice Initiative. The the non-profit filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice last month alleging that Tutwiler officials discourage the reporting of sexual abuse. In the report the group alleged that Tutwiler’s warden and officers “punish and humiliate women who report sexual misconduct,” according to the group.
While the allegations made are serious, many have questioned the report saying that the group seemingly used the data in a skewed fashion to make a predetermined conclusion. In like manner, the group’s interviews with inmates where conducted in a suspect manner according to counter reports. Meanwhile, ALDOC Commissioner Kim Thomas, Senator Ward and Governor Bentley have made looking into the allegations an high priority.
Ward said that he and the committee wanted a thorough understanding how complaints from inmates are handled, “To make sure those who are making accusations are given the privacy and protection so that inmates can bring abuses to light without fear of retribution.”
In 2003 the U.S. Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
While Alabama has had strict guidelines and reporting safeguards for reporting sexual misconduct the U.S. Congress wanted to ensure every state had a ridged system to stem any sexual abuse.
The final PREA guidelines were not released until May 17, 2012, coincidentally the same week that The Equal Justice Initiative released their report.
Thomas who has dedicated his life’s work to the correction system said, “The Department of Corrections is committed to consistently providing appropriate security for inmates and staff, not only for inmates at Tutwiler, but any facility where an inmate is housed.”
In fact a secure phone line and safe reporting procedures have been in place at Tutwiller prison. Thomas has said that every compliant made is throughly investigated and that there is zero tolerance for such acts. Ironically there have been internal reports that say the warden at Tutwiller goes above and beyond what is required to prevent and investigate inmate abuse and sexual allegations
“Part of the purpose of the meeting was to insure that the legislative body is proactive and fully engaged,” said Ward.
Commissioner Thomas, is to keep the legislators fully apprised as the PREA policies and procedure are implemented throughout the system.
During the weeks following the Tutwiller accusations, a small choir of people began to call for Thomas’ head but Governor Bentley, Ward and a host of others have stood firmly behind the commissioner.
“I have heard some of that,” said Ward, “but let me assure you that after the time I have spent with Commissioner Thomas I can say he is first class and does a great job.”
Ward says that there is always a process that must be gone through before “we can say what did or did not happen.” But he says he has been pleased with the process so far, giving high praise to the Governor and Thomas. “I have to commend the Commissioner and the Bentley administration, they have taken this situation very seriously and have handled it with great care and professionalism.”
The senator concedes that there are many ills that plague Alabama’s correctional facilities but he is confident that the men and women who work to run the trouble system are doing an excellent job under trying circumstances.