The Crimes Against Women at Tutwiler Prison
Revolution #332, March 10, 2014
“We interviewed over 50 women during the course of our investigation and every single one of the women that we interviewed had been either sexually abused or witnessed another woman being sexually abused. And the sexual harassment was rampant. So things like calling women by their body parts, instead of by name, male officers viewing women while they defecate and urinate and shave and shower—that was a daily thing, that male officers would be present in the showers. They were present while the women changed their clothes, they were present when they used the bathroom.”
“One of the things that I see with the women at Tutwiler is that this thing went on for so long and women were asking, either people don’t believe us, or worse yet, they believe us but think that we deserve it.”
Charlotte Morrison, Senior Attorney at Equal Justice Initiative, Revolution interview, March 7, 2014
“The way to think about Tutwiler is that it is an amalgam and very intense concentration of the problems that exist in women’s correctional institutions.”
Brenda V. Smith, professor at the Washington College of Law at American University, interviewed by Revolution, March 7, 2014
“It’s inhumane for inmates to be here, period.”
Monica Washington, prisoner at Tutwiler who was raped by a prison guard, New York Times, March 1, 2014
“It’s a constant walk of fear.”
Former inmate Stephanie Hibbett recalling her time at Tutwiler, Washington Post, March 2, 2014
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In May 2012, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, calling for a quick and thorough federal investigation into widespread sexual abuse of women prisoners by male guards at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama. An investigation by EJI, a non-profit organization based in Montgomery, had found shocking crimes being carried out against women at Tutwiler, including rape, sexual harassment, the trading of sex for basic commodities, and systematic repression against any prisoner who complained about this abuse.
In January 2014, after its own investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a 36-page letter to Alabama’s governor, stating that conditions at Tutwiler violate the constitutional rights of prisoners by “violating their right to bodily safety and privacy and continuing to expose them to actual harm and the serious risk of harm from sexual abuse and harassment by correctional staff and other prisoners.”
The DOJ letter stated:
“Tutwiler has a history of unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse and harassment. The women at Tutwiler universally fear for their safety. They live in a sexualized environment with repeated and open sexual behavior, including: abusive sexual contact between staff and prisoners; sexualized activity, including a strip show condoned by staff; profane and unprofessional sexualized language and harassment; and deliberate cross-gender viewing of prisoners showering, urinating, and defecating.
“For nearly two decades, Tutwiler staff have harmed women in their care with impunity by sexually abusing and sexually harassing them. 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.
Prison officials have failed to curb the sexual abuse and sexual harassment despite possessing actual knowledge of the harm, including a federal statistical analysis identifying sexual misconduct at Tutwiler as occurring at one of the highest rates in the country.”
The Department of Justice finding letter “Investigation of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women and Notice of Expanded Investigation”
These findings were based on interviews with dozens of prisons and letters from 233 women at Tutwiler, as well as the prison’s own internal reports.
Charlotte Morrison, a Senior Attorney at EJI told Revolution: “Women were raped. We have DNA confirmation that the officers were the fathers in those cases. We have women who officers propositioned, you know ‘pay to play.’ They propositioned women—that they could get needed items if they agreed to perform some kind of sexual service. And this is in a prison where there is not enough toilet paper to get through the month... They get a minimum supply which any woman in the prison will tell you is not enough to get through the month. And so they have to humiliate themselves to get enough tampons, to get enough toilet paper. It’s just the fear level of deprivation in the prison, and you add a layer of abuse on to that. It’s just really a dangerous and torturous environment for women.” (See “Rampant Sexual Abuse of Women at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama.”)
All this horror, these crimes, was not only happening and known by prison officials to be happening—but as a policy, women who complained about this abuse or tried to make legal claims were routinely and severely punished.
Morrison described how women who reported they had been sexually abused or sexually propositioned by an officer were placed in punitive segregation: “You’re put in an isolation cell and you cannot call your family, you cannot get items from the store and again we’re not talking about luxury items, we’re talking about basic items. You can’t access the store, you can’t call your family. And you’re on lockdown and you don’t know when you’re getting out. So this was the strategy that the Department of Corrections had with every woman who reported, for decades.”
EJI’s investigation found that from 2009 to 2011, six officers had been convicted at Tutwiler for criminal sexual conduct. All cases brought against these prison officers were settled with plea bargains and only one of these officers got sentenced to more than five days in jail.
The Department of Justice investigation showed that “At least thirty-six of the ninety-nine total employees were identified as having had sex with prisoners—approximately 36% of current staff.” If you add staff identified for other forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment, the number of employees at Tutwiler involved in “sexually inappropriate behavior nearly doubles.”
Again, all this was known by the Department of Corrections, as well as federal judges who had these cases brought before them. Yet the reign of sexual abuse against women continued and prison officials protected this practice and took severe retaliation against any of the women who complained.
The women in Tutwiler are as young as 14 and as old as in their 70s and 80s. Just over half of the prisoners in Alabama are locked up for drug and property crimes and this rate for nonviolent offenses, among the highest in the nation, is reflected at Tutwiler. Many women have ended up in prison, doing long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses or minor things like writing a bad check (which is a felony in Alabama). The war on drugs has taken a special toll on women in Alabama, which is a leader when it comes to putting pregnant women in jail for drug use. This includes a new court ruling that pregnant women can be designated as “meth labs” endangering their fetus. (Robin Marty, care2.com, March 5, 2014)
Tutwiler is extremely overcrowded—there are now almost 1,000 prisoners in this facility built for 400 inmates. The conditions here can only be described as inhumane and brutal, for example there is the policy of shackling pregnant women during childbirth, which is also a standard procedure in dozens of other states.
Professor Brenda V. Smith at the Washington College of Law at American University told Revolution: “Sexual abuse is part of it. But it’s the lack of basic respect and regard for the humanity of the people who are in these institutions.”
The Justice Department’s investigation into sexual abuse at Tutwiler found evidence of other constitutional violations, including inadequate conditions, lack of medical and mental healthcare and discriminatory treatment based on race or sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, there were reports of officers compelling Latina prisoners to solely speak English and threatening to discipline them if they spoke Spanish.
Morrison said that one of the cruelest policies was implemented, she believes, in retaliation for EJI’s litigation against sexual abuse in the prison. The warden put in place a policy that inmates working in the infirmary were not allowed to touch another inmate. Morrison gave an example of just how cruel this was:
“One of the big problems of the medical management at Tutwiler is their management of diabetes and so there’s a large number of women who lose limbs. And when they are lying on their bed, they can’t turn over and they rely on the other inmates to turn them over so they don’t get bed sores. They rely on the other inmates to clean them when they defecate. You have women in hospice there. There’s a large aging population, a large number of women who will die at Tutwiler, so they rely on the other inmates to provide them care and comfort as they’re dying through the hospice program. And so these women are now not allowed to touch them. You have very few nurses, you could go an hour—one woman told me that she sat there for an hour waiting for a nurse to come and help her charge, the woman in hospice who had defecated on herself and was very uncomfortable and the warden had said if you touch her, you will get disciplinary.”
In the past five years, more than 20 employees at Tutwiler have been transferred or fired for having illegal sexual contact with prisoners. At least one of these officers ended up at Elmore, a men’s prison, and was one of the guards there involved in taking inmates into isolated areas of the prison where they are handcuffed and stripped naked, and then severely beaten.
Grand juries have dismissed indictments regarding sexual abuse at Tutwiler because no investigation has been done, so there is no evidence to present; and in the minds of the juries there are just “the claims of a criminal” against the word of an officer/staff person—so they believe the officer/staff person every time and dismiss the case. Morrison told Revolution about a case where a woman had been sodomized by a male staff member. But when EJI went to the district attorney and said that they had found strong evidence that a crime had occurred, as soon as they said that the victim was a woman in prison they were told that the DA’s office could not conduct an investigation—that they never investigate crimes against women who are incarcerated, as a matter of policy.
Brenda V. Smith told Revolution: “Alabama has a very long history of oppression and racism. And you have that grafted on to so many of its institutions—its prisons, its jails, its juvenile detention facilities.” Smith referred to the legacy of slavery and how “You have to remember that while the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, it creates an exception for conviction of a crime. The behavior that has been described at Tutwiler approximates the conditions of slavery—the inability for women to control viewing or touching of their bodies by individuals of the opposite gender, the violence and the lack of respect for their basic dignity.”
But Professor Smith also points out that Tutwiler is not in a class by itself. She described the case of the sexual abuse of girls at a juvenile detention facility in Chalkville, Alabama; with 49 plaintiffs, the state ended up settling for $12.5 million in 2007. A case in Michigan where there was a settlement of $100 million for 500 women who had been sexually abused in prison. A case in Washington, DC, where Smith represented a class action suit with about 700 women with claims of sexual victimization in a DC prison.
Clearly, rape and other forms of sexual abuse in women’s prisons in the U.S. is widespread and rampant. Prison officials defend it and severely punish those women who try to fight it.
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We really have to ask: What kind of a system is this? Where, as Charlotte Morrison said, mass incarceration is a “defining characteristic of our society.” Where more than 2.2 million people are locked up, the majority Black and Latino—many for nonviolent drug-related crimes. A system where women are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population? Where these women end up subjected to the most dehumanizing conditions and are raped and sexually assaulted; where they end up having to sell their bodies just to get daily necessities like toilet paper and tampons?
Mass incarceration IS a defining character of U.S. society. This system criminalizes millions who it has oppressed, and this is happening in a very concentrated way to women in prison—where women are taken from their loved ones, robbed of their children, their very lives stolen, their dignity constantly assaulted. This is a sick, depraved system that has no right to rule.