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Federal report finds Alabama prison 'toxic,' female inmates abused

By Bill Mears, CNN
updated 9:41 AM EST, Thu January 23, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Justice Department issues scathing report on Tutwiler Prison
  • Says corrections agency has violated women's constitutional rights
  • Corrections chief says that DOJ findings are "off the mark"

(CNN) -- The Justice Department concluded in a blistering report on Wednesday that female inmates at one Alabama prison live in a toxic environment marked by sex abuse and harassment by corrections staff.

The Department's Civil Rights Division said the Alabama Department of Corrections has repeatedly violated the women's constitutional rights at the Julia Tutwiler Prison.

The state was urged to take immediate remedial steps, but there was no indication the federal government was prepared to take any formal legal action.

"Our investigation has revealed serious systemic operational deficiencies at Tutwiler that have exposed women prisoners to harm and serious risk of harm from staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse and sexual harassment," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels.

"These problems have been festering for years, and are well known to Alabama prison officials. Remedying these deficiencies is critical to ensuring constitutionally protected treatment of women prisoners at Tutwiler and will promote public safety," she said.

In a letter to Gov. Robert Bentley, federal officials said the inmates "universally fear for their safety" and "live in a sexualized environment with repeated and open sexual behavior."

The alleged violations included "strip shows" and "cross-gender viewing" of female prisoners as they undressed in front of correction staff.

The Justice Department also said female inmates at the facility in Wetumpka, north of the capital of Montgomery, had "inadequate conditions" of confinement and medical and mental health care.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said the findings were "off the mark" and that his agency is cooperating with the Justice Department.

"We have been proactive from the beginning," Thomas said. "We have never downplayed the significant and serious nature of these allegations. I do not, however, agree that Tutwiler is operating in a deliberately indifferent or unconstitutional manner."

Thomas said that his agency will "continue our efforts to implement changes and recommendations with the goal of improving prison conditions and avoiding potential contested litigation."

Thomas said the letter was based on a federal oversight visit from last year, noting improvements have been made.

The state said it was informed in March of last year that the Justice Department was investigating the prison as a civil rights matter.

"The department stands ready to work with the state of Alabama on solving the problems at Tutwiler," said U.S. Attorney George L. Beck Jr. for the Middle District of Alabama. "The report has identified a very serious and troubling situation at the facility. Action needs to be taken immediately."

Federal officials said Thomas and his staff have cooperated and have shown "receptivity to concerns raised."

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