Tuscaloosa, AL – The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery has asked the Department of Justice to get involved in a serious issue at the Tutwiler Prison for Women. The organization wants the DOJ to look into what they call a widespread pattern of officer-on-inmate sexual violence. Bryan Stevenson is executive director at the Equal Justice Initiative. He talked to me about how the issue got to this point and how his organization got involved.
"We we're asked by a federal court late last summer to get involved in a case of a woman who had been sexually assaulted at the prison," said Stevenson. "When we investigated her situation we found out about other women who had been assaulted and victimized. "
In interviews with over 50 women prisoners at Tutwiler, EJI found instances of guards raping inmates, sexual assaults, exchanging smuggled contraband for sexual favors and sexual harassment. "I do think part of this is response to the growing problems of overcrowding in all of the state's prisons," said Stevenson. "We don't have enough correctional staff to manage them safely and securely in a way that I think even the leadership would like them to be managed."
Contributing to that problem is the dwindling budget of the Department of Corrections. In the current economic downturn the Corrections budget has seen its numbers reduced by years of proration. Overcrowding is so bad in the state that action had to be taken stave off a federal lawsuit like the one California saw with its own prison system. But money alone isn't the only reason behind the pattern of sexual violence nor is it necessarily the fix.
"It would not cost anything to change the protocols of how women are treated by male officers when they are vulnerable, when they are naked when they're in the showers when they are in the bathroom areas," Stevenson said. EJI also found that state officials had very minimal response to officers convicted of criminal sexual abuse of women prisoners. Harsher penalties could also be a no cost solution.
"If we continue to tolerate this kind of misconduct and abuse we are actually risking a lot more expense and money, said Stevenson. "Because you can't do this kind of thing with impunity forever there's a point where you're going to be held accountable financially as well as legally." EJI can only investigate and file a complaint. The Department of Justice on the other hand is empowered to conduct a thorough investigation and hand down penalties.
The Alabama Corrections Department declined to comment on the allegations.