The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

January 26, 2013

Fed study criticizes Alabama women's prison

Associated Press

— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A Justice Department report released Friday criticizes how inmates are treated at Alabama's lone state prison for women, where advocates last year alleged rampant sexual misconduct by workers.

Released by the Alabama Department of Corrections months after it was received, the study by the National Institute of Corrections said prisoners have reported sexual abuse and officials haven't always treated those complaints in the proper manner.

The study said rape complaints are not always investigated in the same manner and the process is often kept secret.

However, the report did not directly address whether correctional officers routinely committed sexual offenses against prisoners, as advocates claim.

"Staff and inmates are much more likely to cooperate with a process if they understand how it works," the report said.

"It appears there is a culture of certain captains, sergeants and officers who have their own set of rules as it relates to managing the inmate population, while there is another group of the same level staff who try and manage with a more humane approach," the report said.

The report said the prison, built is 1943, is dirty and overcrowded, and staffers aren't trained well enough. It also said there are too many men and not enough officers.

The review found that inmates don't trust the prison's complaint system, and it cited claims that prisoners are disciplined for bringing up problems at Tutwiler, located in Wetumpka about 20 miles north of Montgomery.

Prisons Commissioner Kim Thomas said officials had stopped the practice of putting prisoners who file a complaint against an officer in solitary confinement. They also have been given more storage space, which was another complaint, he said.

The report found it was difficult for the female inmates to get privacy when changing clothes or for other activities.

The department studied the prison after a Montgomery-based group. Equal Justice Initiative, leveled complaints last year of rampant rape, harassment and sexual assault at Tutwiler. The executive director of EJI, Bryan Stevenson, could not immediately be reached for comment on the review.

Prison officials said they are changing policies to make improvements. Thomas was asked at a news conference why it took several months to release copies of the report. Thomas said he wanted to give his staff time to study it.

"We had some bad apples and we are working to weed them out," said Thomas. He did not elaborate.

The report found that inmates interviewed in focus groups in September did not believe prison management staff is accessible or approachable.

"Feedback from the various focus groups points to an attitude of 'bullying' on the part of leadership toward staff and inmates," the report said.

The report said inmates have little confidence in the grievance process.

Several members of the Legislature's prison oversight committee attended Friday's news conference and received copies of the report.

The committee's chairman, Republican Sen. Cam Ward of Alabaster, said if something is not done to resolve the problems identified at Tutwiler "it would lead to court challenges down the road."

He said many of the problems, like the age of the facilities and overcrowding, will take money, which legislators may be unwilling to spend on inmates.