Ala.'s women's prison shows challenges of federal intervention

The 2014 report documented abusive sexual contact between staff and prisoners, profane and unprofessional sexualized language and harassment


William Thornton
Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

WETUMPKA, Ala. — Speaking one night by phone from Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, Sylvia Hopkins said there are two kinds of inmates inside.

“I feel like this isn’t my home,” she said, with the voices of other inmates audible behind her. “But there are women here who get pissed if you try to change the TV, like it’s their TV.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections says it has spent $4.6 million in improvements at Tutwiler. (Photo/Alabama Department of Corrections)
The Alabama Department of Corrections says it has spent $4.6 million in improvements at Tutwiler. (Photo/Alabama Department of Corrections)

For some housed at Tutwiler, Hopkins said, their incarceration is temporary – the outcome of bad choices but not their ultimate destination. For others, Alabama’s prison for women is practically home.

But what kind of home is it?

The Justice Department’s recent two-and-a-half year investigation focused on conditions in Alabama’s men’s prisons, finding they likely violate the Constitutional rights of inmates. But Tutwiler, located in Wetumpka, was the first focus of the DOJ’s attention. Five years ago, investigators found “unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse and harassment” and an atmosphere where the “women at Tutwiler universally fear for their safety.”

Alabama is now nearing a 49-day deadline to fix some of the problems in its mens’ prisons. After the Tutwiler report, the Alabama Department of Corrections and the DOJ reached a settlement that included regular monitoring of conditions inside Tutwiler and efforts to make them better. That process, and how things have changed inside, may offer an idea of how the process of remaking the men’s penitentiaries may look.

‘What are these idiots doing?’

Where did Tutwiler start? The 2014 report documented abusive sexual contact between staff and prisoners, profane and unprofessional sexualized language and harassment, and deliberate viewing by male correctional officers of prisoners showering, urinating and defecating. Among the incidents was a staff-condoned strip show, among other memorable findings.

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It's an environment still recalled vividly by Letha Miller Lasiter, a former Tutwiler inmate. Lasiter, 40, lives in Centre now, with a business in Gadsden. Once a month, she drives from Weiss Lake to Texas to take part in Houston-based Cool Ministries – Christ Over Our Life. There, she and others enter Texas penitentiaries, offering a 12-step ministry, concerts and a chance at a college education, once the inmates are released. She says she’s come a long way from her time in an Alabama prison, and she doesn’t credit her experience at Tutwiler with improving her life.

Lasiter spent seven-and-a-half months there, from 2008 to January of 2009 for possession of cocaine. Back in 2004, she broke her back during a car accident and became addicted to pain medication. In 2005, she was arrested in Clanton with cocaine. Because of her back injury, she was allowed to lay in her bunk without taking part in labor, sleeping during the day and laying awake at night, she said.

She had only been there a few weeks when she began to see the kind of daily, casual violence that still haunts her. The dorm then had between 50 to 60 inmates, sharing three toilets and three showers. One night, she remembers seeing the only guard for the dorm locking the door and walking off. One inmate rose from her bunk and went to a broom closet, usually left locked, but this time accessible.

“I thought, ‘What are these idiots doing?’” she said. “I laid down like I was asleep.”

Lasiter said the inmate retrieved a broom from the closet, then pulled another inmate from a bunk and raped her, using the broom pole. She then put her victim back in the bunk, telling her not to report what had happened. The guard returned and replaced the supplies back in the closet.

“All it was over was another inmate felt she owed her from the commissary,” she said.

Some guards at Tutwiler abused prisoners, but the prisoners would not report the instances to stay out of “the hole,” Lasiter said. One guard, knowing an inmate liked pecans, would drop a pecan on the inmate’s bunk, as a sign that they should meet up later for sex. Other prisoners would use sex to get privileges – an extra roll of toilet paper, a razor. Some inmates who carried on relationships with each other would be separated, while others would not, based on relationships with guards.

One of the reasons Lasiter participates in a prison ministry now, she said, is because of the place where most sexual abuses took place between guards and prisoners in Tutwiler – the chapel bathroom. Knowing this kept some inmates from visiting chapel, she said.

‘Exactly where it needs to be’

Since the 2014 DOJ report, and a court settlement a year later, the Alabama Department of Corrections says it has spent $4.6 million in improvements at Tutwiler. The prison installed more than 300 cameras for around-the-clock surveillance, at a cost of $1.4 million, along with shower doors and toilet partitions. By late 2015, Justice Department officials told state officials Alabama was “exactly where it needs to be on the path” toward meeting the settlement.

An independent court appointed monitor reports on conditions inside Tutwiler every six months, based documents and interviews with staff, officers and inmates. The most recent report, filed in February, says Tutwiler is in “substantial compliance” with 41 of 44 areas of the 2015 settlement agreement and partially compliant with two. One area, dealing with developing programs to address issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and other areas, will not be evaluated until the next report. The prison also has to validate a classification assessment for offenders, which ensures inmates are adequately supervised and get the right treatment toward rehabilitation.

The two sections needing improvement are familiar problems - recruiting a larger number of female officers, and keeping adequate staffing. Tutwiler’s original design had an operating capacity of 478 inmates in its two sections. As of last December, its total inmate population count was 876. The sprawling campus has poorly-lit areas and is aging, with limited space for various needs, the report stated.

Back in September 2011, Tutwiler had 93 correctional officers out of an authorized staff of 160. As of last December, the prison had 67 correctional officers on staff – 36 females and 31 males. ADOC Spokesman Bob Horton said six female correctional officers graduated last week from the ADOC Correctional Officer Academy, which brings the percentage of female correctional officers at the prison to 58 percent. The department expects the percentage could increase to 60 percent by the end of the year.

Trauma from Alabama’s ‘dog-eat-dog’ prisons continues long after sentence ends

The toll extends beyond the sentence, say those who have left prison, and impacts the families of those who care for them.

To fill gaps, the Alabama Department of Corrections will bring in officers from other prisons, but only after they’ve been adequately trained, the monitor stated in the 77-page court report. And like other Alabama prisons, Tutwiler relies on mandatory overtime to cover shifts, but this also presents problems with a small staff.

“Correction officers, especially single parents, face challenges balancing family obligations with unscheduled, forced overtime demands,” the monitor wrote. “This can lead to an increase in staff members ‘calling out’ sick as a means to obtain needed time off.”

‘It’s dehumanizing’

The court monitor gives credit to ADOC and Tutwiler staff for changes made over the last four years. But talking to inmates shows there are still problems, as the court appointed monitor also stated.

Hopkins, currently serving a 10-year sentence for property theft from Etowah County, has been in Tutwiler for more than a month. Before that, she said she was in Etowah County Detention Center for four months. This isn’t her first time in prison either. She spent two years at a federal correctional facility in Tallahassee, Fla. She said conditions at Tutwiler are 100 times worse than the federal pen. “Like the projects compared to Trump Tower,” she said.

One inmate had bleach sprayed in her face by another inmate in retaliation over perceived slights, Hopkins said. Another was beaten with a “lock in a sock” during a fight in the shower. When inmates head to shower time, there are only four showers for 70 females, which can make for a long wait in a crowded space, inspiring fistfights. And the showers are run by some inmate cliques which makes it hard for certain prisoners to get their time in. Other inmates use shower time for sex, Hopkins said. Some inmates choose not to shower.

“It’s like a big ole party for some of these people in here,” she said. “It’s dehumanizing.”

Hopkins’ complaints sound similar to what the court monitor found in talking to inmates and from surveys of them, as both staff and inmates found the shower area was the “hotspot” for inmate smoking, use of drugs and sexual contact between inmates. Almost half of the respondents said there wasn’t enough staff for inmates to get to their work assignments or programs.

The monitor also found a high rate of staff call outs, critical posts being filled by mandating overtime for officers, assigning supervisors to work line posts and doubling up officer posts.

This sounds about right to Hopkins. She said one officer at Tutwiler may sometimes watch up to 210 female inmates. This means turning a blind eye to abusive conduct between inmates, she said, and inmates sleeping in unassigned dormitories. And while Tutwiler made some strides toward more female correctional officers, there are still male officers who see female inmates in all settings and employ abusive, sexual language, she said. The court monitor also found this complaint more frequently during her last visit, stating “it appears verbal abuse by staff of inmates is a chronic issue.”

Most of the inmate population at Tutwiler, according to the court monitor, is white, while 59 of 67 officers, and 18 of 19 sergeants working at Tutwiler last year, were black. Some white inmates claim more verbal abuse is directed at them than toward black inmates, and black couples get preferential treatment. Hopkins made similar claims. The court monitor wrote “these issues are deeply embedded in culture and the past experiences of the women pre-incarceration.”

Courtney Diamond-Call, another Tutwiler inmate, is currently serving a three-year sentence out of Colbert County for burglary. She says she has already earned enough time to be eligible for mandatory early release, but the paperwork is still stalled.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “It’s hard to stay positive. I fit all the criteria. I have a job waiting for me and a place to stay. I have family and friends who will support me. It’s like they’re just moving bodies around in here.”

Diamond-Call and Hopkins say the overcrowded, hot, stagnant atmosphere contributes to a feeling of hopelessness. Only a few inmates are given work in kitchen and laundry duty. There’s a waiting list for classes. The chance for rehabilitation seems slim, they said.

What Tutwiler is doing right

The court monitor’s report did give the ADOC and Tutwiler leadership praise for the steps it has taken over the past four years in a number of areas.

“In the monitor's conversations with inmates, it is a rare occurrence for a woman to disagree that there has been positive change at Tutwiler,” she wrote. “Feedback from the long termers underscored that many women feel much safer at Tutwiler today.”

Inmates interviewed said they believe the prison’s leadership would act on reports of sexual abuse or sexual harassment. The prison has also made strides in reclassifying inmates, with about 70 percent identified as minimum custody. This came after officials determined many inmates were overclassified because of criteria designed for male prisoners.

ADOC also partnered with J.F. Ingram State Technical College to open an e-learning center, providing vocational and educational training classes.

Then there’s the Alabama Prison Birth Project, which provides doula support to pregnant prisoners. Tutwiler created a lactation room, where mothers are allowed to leave their dorms for a private space whenever they need to pump breast milk. The room, called “Serene Expression,” was painted with pastel colors and decorated with inmate artwork. The milk is logged, labeled, and stored in a deep freezer and once a week, a certified counselor packs the milk in dry ice and ships it to where the mothers' babies live.

ADOC trumpets the progress the prison has made, saying it “is now recognized as a national model for women services under the direction of Deputy Commissioner Dr. Wendy Williams.”

‘That was completely different from Alabama’

But those two outstanding areas – staffing and inmate classification - can make a big difference in how inmates progress through the prison system. For example, Lasiter’s stay at Tutwiler – before the DOJ got involved – wasn't her only stint in prison. In 2011, she was sentenced to a year and one day in Texas for driving while intoxicated.

“That was completely different than Alabama,” she said. “Texas has such a big system, they separate the criminals. If you’re there for DWI, prostitution, small crimes, you’re not around anyone who’s violent. At Tutwiler, for a good three months, I was bunked with a woman doing life without parole for killing her husband.”

Why was Texas different? There, Lasiter said, inmates were put in 58-bunk dorms, with four dorms to a pod. In the center, two officers stood guard for every two pods. There were cameras to record everything, and curtains in the showers allowed guards to watch while concealing everything on inmates from the shoulders to the knees. Drug tests were administered by female officers.

Hopkins said, when violence breaks out at Tutwiler now, it’s “hard,” especially since inmates know where cameras are positioned. “When they decide they’re going to hurt somebody, it gets pretty bad.”

And with understaffed prisons, the number of inmates favors an atmosphere of violence where action by officers is after the fact, rather than proactive.

“It doesn’t matter what breaks out, there’s no one to stop it,” Lasiter said.

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©2019 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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