Scathing report on treatment of inmates: Legislator says feds could take over Tutwiler: Cam Ward says ‘abuses are well documented’
Cam Ward says ‘abuses are well documented’
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.”
State Prisons Commissioner Kim Thomas on Friday released an action plan for Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women to take “aggressive steps” to address allegations of rape at the facility.
The release of the plan follows a three-day visit by the National Institute of Corrections in September to review the Wetumpka facility.
Thomas said he invited the NIC to tour the facility after the nonprofit group Equal Justice Initiative released a report that found widespread rapes of inmates by Tutwiler employees.
The four-person NIC team produced a 38-page report on the prison, and Thomas conceded Friday that the agency found an “oppressive, intimidating atmosphere” at the facility.
The NIC team met with staff members after its visit, and Thomas said changes began almost immediately.
“The very next day we began to implement changes while we awaited the final report,” Thomas said.
EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson said it was a good sign that Thomas invited the NIC on his own accord but added that a long-term solution is going to be needed to fix the state’s prisons.
“I think this report really wakes people up,” Stevenson said.
He added the report points to issues that are systemwide, including a lack of funding and prison overcrowding.
Stevenson and Thomas both said Tutwiler is at least 90 percent over capacity. Thomas said it also is only 60 percent staffed.
Thomas would not go into details Friday about how many ADOC employees had been fired or prosecuted in connection with sexual assaults at Tutwiler. He said there had been one pregnancy as the result of a rape of an inmate by a correctional employee.
Among the problems found in the report were a lack of security cameras and a lack of female employees.
In his action plan, Thomas vows to pursue at least $3.2 million to provide cameras and monitoring equipment at Tutwiler.
The plan calls for the recruitment and hiring of female correctional officers to work at Tutwiler and directing any new trainees with ADOC from the Montgomery area to be assigned to either Tutwiler or the Montgomery Women’s Facility.
Other directives in the action plan include more training in the Prison Rape Elimination Act and changes to improve conditions in general at the prison.