By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—On Friday, a press conference was held to release the findings of an investigation into conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
ALDOC Commissioner Kim Thomas ordered the review of Tutwiler after allegation of sexual misconduct were made by the Equal Justice Initiative. In May 2012, the non-profit filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that Tutwiler officials discourage the reporting of sexual abuse. In the report, the group said that Tutwiler’s warden and officers “punish and humiliate women who report sexual misconduct.”
Rather that sweeping the allegation under the carpet, Commissioner Thomas did what few in government ever do and that was call for an independent audit of the women’s facility. Thomas engaged NIC (National Institute of Correction) which is an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Institute is headed by a director appointed by the U.S. Attorney General.
In November, NIC returned its finding on Tutwiler which resulted in a 37-page report concerning issues facing the safe operations of the women’s prison.
Thomas opened the press conference by saying, “Understand from the beginning that I am 100 percent committed to ensuring that whatever problems that we found or may exist and be found we want to correct them. We will not ignore the issues.”
Thomas said that steps had already been taken to, “increase safety for inmates, and those steps will continue to taken in earnest.”
The NIC inspectors listed among the “challenges” at Tutwiler was that inmates and support staff did not “feel physically or sexually safe.”
The report also said that, “The women and staff report that Tutwiler is a repressive and intimidating environment.”
Construction on Tutwiler was completed in 1942, little has change to the facility in intervening 70 years. The facility was built to house a maximum of 400 woman. It currently is home to approximately 700 inmates, including Alabama’s female death row prisoners.
Thomas says that the prison is only at 60 percent of its needed correctional officers. Alabama’s prison system is the least funded system in the country with an average cost of $42.00 a day per inmate.
An antiquated facility, which is overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded has led to a prison culture that opens the door for violence and intimidation of prisoners as well as staff.
It is important to note that before the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1972 Equal Employment Opportunity Act, female correctional officers exclusively guarded female prisoners. This gender specific employment is no longer permissible under federal law.
Senator Cam Ward, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Chairman for the Joint Oversight Committee for Prisons said, “I am concerned with the allegations that have been raised at Tutwiler. This report confirms that our state must do more to address abuse, overcrowding, and understaffing in our corrections system. I believe Commissioner Thomas was correct in asking for an outside, independent organization to come in and audit our system. The Bentley administration has been proactive in addressing these concerns, and I look forward to working with them to do whatever is necessary to address the challenges outlined in this report.”
So, it is that NIC found many needed improvements for Tutwiler. One such challenge is that showers and bathrooms were more or less communal and being watched over in many cases by male correctional officers.
Thomas made it clear that the ALDOC is working toward installing more privacy and is also hoping for $1.8 million in funding to place security cameras though out Tutwiler. However, it is difficult to imagine the legislature approving such an upgrade at the women’s prison when just a few months ago a constitutional amendment was needed just to fund the bare minimum to keep Alabama prison system from financial failure.
Thomas and his team have laid out an exhaustive agenda to insure inmate protection and to enhance standards at Tutwiler.
“We are going to make a good thing out of this report and allow a lot of positive change to come from this,” said Thomas.
In April 2012 the Bureau of Justice Assistance released the guidelines for the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
A major part of Thomas’ plan for Tutwiler is to vigorously institute the PREA guidelines. In fact, Thomas and team have been working on this even before the standards were completed.
Among Thomas’ action items is to, “establish a training curriculum and provide instruction on topics of gender sensitivity and Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) for staff who are assigned to and work overtime at female facilities. This training will be in addition to the 2013 Annual Training Curriculum.”
At the press conference Thomas said that he would not tolerate custodial rape saying, “Let me make it very clear that in 29 years of working in corrections and being a former correctional officer the act of sexual custodial misconduct to me is the most despicable abuse of power, one we cannot tolerate.”
Another action item on the agenda is a working collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative.
Thomas said that since the report came out he and his team have worked tirelessly to implement a plan of action. He also said that, “Since this report has come out we have seen a decrease in reports of sexual misconduct at Tutwiler.”
He indicated he understands this was just the beginning of a long process, but he and his team are moving decisively and quickly. Thomas’ agenda is aimed at insuring humane treatment for all the women in state custody.
“Every complaint we receive we investigate fully. We take every complaint very seriously and turn them over to the district attorney, then we assist the district attorney in a way we can,” said Thomas.
Perhaps a rarity in today’s world of government bureaucracy but Thomas, excepts responsibility, works to improve those things under his care and does not pass the buck when times are tough.