WASHINGTON – The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division released last week its’ letter of findings determining that prison officials at the Alabama Department of Corrections (“ADOC”) and the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women (Tutwiler) violate women prisoners’ constitutional rights by failing to protect them from harm due to sexual abuse and sexual harassment by correctional staff. The Justice Department found that ADOC and Tutwiler officials have failed to take reasonable steps to protect people in their custody from the known and readily apparent threat of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Specifically, the Justice Department found that prison officials have long been on notice of the risks to women prisoners and have chosen to ignore them.
The Justice Department found that women prisoners at Tutwiler live in a toxic environment with repeated and open sexual behavior. The conduct to which women are exposed, includes: officers requiring women to engage in sexual acts with officers in exchange for basic sanitary supplies; male officers openly watching women shower or use the toilet; a staff facilitated “strip show;” a constant barrage of sexually offensive language; punishment of prisoners who report improper conduct; and encouraging improper sexual contact between prisoners. The sexual abuse and harassment is grossly underreported due to insufficient staffing and supervision, inadequate policies and procedures, a heightened fear of retaliation, and an inadequate investigative process.
“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 Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “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.”
The Justice Department’s comprehensive investigation involved an in-depth review and analysis of documents, including policies and procedures, incident reports, investigative reports, orientation materials, and staff training materials. The Justice Department also interviewed prison officials and administrative and security staff, as well as current and former women prisoners.
In its letter of findings, the Justice Department also notified ADOC and Tutwiler officials of its intent to expand its investigation to examine allegations of excessive use of force, constitutionally inadequate conditions of confinement, constitutionally inadequate medical and mental health care, and discriminatory treatment based on national origin, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The decision to expand its investigation of conditions at Tutwiler stemmed from the Justice Department’s review of information suggesting that the systemic deficiencies at Tutwiler that facilitated staff sexual misconduct may also lead to constitutionally inadequate conditions of confinement.
“The Department stands ready to work with the state of Alabama on solving the problems at Tutwiler,” said George L. Beck, Jr., U.S. Attorney 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. I am certain that Commissioner Thomas and the Governor’s office will continue to cooperate in eradicating these deplorable conditions.”
The Justice Department commends Commissioner Kim Thomas and his staff for the cooperation they have shown, and for their receptivity to concerns raised. The Justice Department looks forward to continuing to work with ADOC and Tutwiler officials in a collaborative manner to timely resolve these findings under mutually agreeable terms and to work on the expanded investigation.