BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - We began following allegations of officers raping inmates at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka when a federal complaint was filed on behalf of inmates in May. A Fox 6 On your Side investigation reveals problems throughout Alabama's Department of Corrections. We talked to the Commissioner of Alabama's DOC as well as lawmakers and former inmates. Summer Jacobs of Decatur spent two years at Tutwiler and was released in July 2012.
"It was the most horrible experience of my life," Jacobs says. "It was terrible."
Jacobs is a mother of three and served time in several Alabama prisons for identity theft, forgery and fraud after she got caught up in drugs. She was not surprised by allegations of widespread sexual abuse of inmates by officers at Tutwiler.
A non-profit legal advocacy group called Equal Justice Initiative filed a federal complaint based on interviews with fifty women. They began investigating after four correctional officers were charged with custodial sexual misconduct and two were charged with custodial sexual abuse. The charges were all filed between 2009-2011. All six men pleaded guilty to lesser charges and only two spent time behind bars.
The Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson says the Department of Justice is now investigating Tutwiler. He described the conditions at Tutwiler as traumatizing, even for women who were not directly victimized.
"It cannot be overstated how traumatizing this has been for the women there," Stevens says. "This fear that you're always at risk, that it's not safe to take a shower, that it's not safe to go to sleep when certain officers are in the dorm, that you can be extorted, that you can be manipulated into sexual favors, it's really horrific."
Governor Bentley appointed Kim Thomas Commissioner of Alabama's Department of Corrections in 2010. Thomas would not allow Fox 6 inside Tutwiler Prison but he did sit down with us for an interview. We asked him when he was first made aware of sexual abuse allegations at Tutwiler.
"Well, in our business, PREA definitely has been, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, has been on the minds of everybody since it passed congress," Thomas says. He cited the Prison Rape Elimination Act over half a dozen times during our interview when we asked specific questions about Tutwiler.
Thomas did tell us they have staff members working to investigate allegations of rape and abuse in prison. After Equal Justice Initiative filed its complaint, Thomas asked the National Institute of Corrections to conduct an investigation. He's still waiting on the results.
Thomas believes the issues at Tutwiler are not unique. He characterized the problems at Tutwiler as part of a larger issue of prison rape and says corrections administrators in other states deal with these same issues.
We pressed him on whether other states see the same volume of officer-on-inmate incidents as Tutwiler.
"Well, I think it all is concerning," Thomas says. "I mean, even if its inmate on inmate, it's something that should not be allowed. It should not be condoned, we should take every effort we can to make these environments safe for these people, so I wouldn't say its any different in any other state than it is in Alabama."
Summer Jacobs says Tutwiler is different than other facilities. She and several other former inmates we spoke with describe a corrupt culture where officers routinely use profanity, lewd comments and verbal abuse to degrade female prisoners and take advantage of them.
Jacobs was never sexually abused at Tutwiler, but she remembers multiple sexual relationships between officers and her fellow inmates. She and other former inmates also describe widespread homosexual behavior between inmates that they say is often encouraged by officers.
"It's free live porn for them," Jacobs says. "Its disgusting but that's what goes on down there. I know sometimes the girls say its consensual but its really not because you can't tell those people no. I mean, if you tell them no you're just gonna make your life a living hell."
That hell included being put in segregation, a common practice at Tutwiler when women brought forth a complaint or were suspected of being in a relationship with an officer.
Jacobs says she spent seven days in segregation when prison officials suspected she'd been using Facebook. She was cleared of those allegations, but after spending a week in a cell alone she says she saw other women completely neglected and she was denied basic hygiene.
"I didn't have shampoo, a change of clothes, toothpaste or a glass to drink water out of for four days," Jacobs says of her time in segregation.
The Equal Justice Initiative says placing women in segregation discourages them from reporting abuse. Commissioner Thomas says that policy has changed. Thomas says inmates are no longer placed in segregation when they make a complaint and he made that change to reassure the inmate population.
"That is something that I want the women to feel and the men to feel that if they come forward with a complaint, that it's gonna be taken seriously," Thomas says. "That it's not gonna be blown off, that we're going to take swift action, we're going to thoroughly investigate it and if there's wrongdoing the wrongdoer is gonna be held accountable."
Senator Cam Ward of Alabaster leads the joint oversight prison committee in Montgomery and he says getting to the bottom of Tutwiler's problems is a top priority.
"There's no question the number one job of government is public safety," says Senator Ward. "We have to protect the public. But two, we have a constitutional responsibility on cruel and unusual punishment and you can't create these systems like a third world country and expect them to work."
Perhaps the most troubling allegation is inmate pregnancies. Equal Justice Initiative says several inmates have given birth to babies fathered by correctional officers in the past two years. In her two years at Tutwiler, Summer Jacobs says she knew three women impregnated by officers. But Commissioner Thomas says he only knows of two cases in Tutwiler's history where an inmate was impregnated by an officer and in both cases the officer was dismissed.
We asked Thomas if he thinks the Department of Corrections has done everything it could do to manage Tutwiler or if mistakes have been made.
"I think we've been super aggressive, it's something that we do not tolerate," says Thomas. "If the public knew the challenges that we go through on a day to day basis, the fact that we're 90% over capacity, the lack of staff, the difficult task that we have before us every single day. It's just a couple of bad apples that I want to make sure we get rid of and my coworkers do as well. I mean, have we made mistakes? I mean, this is not a perfect world."
Bryan Stevenson with Equal Justice Initiative characterized the culture at Tutwiler as more than a few bad apples.
"I think there's this idea that because they're incarcerated, because they're convicted, because these are people who have no power that you can do whatever you want with impunity," he says. "And I think that notion had developed at that prison in ways that was quite tragic and has left a real scar on the women who have been incarcerated there."
Meanwhile Summer Jacobs is trying to move on with her life, but gets emotional when she talks about trying to speak out and make a difference for the women who are still at Tutwiler. She keeps in touch with them through letters that she receives regularly, many of them pleading for help.
Senator Cam Ward says it is critical that Alabama's Prison System be fixed.
"Politically, quite honestly it's not popular to go 'We need to put more money in prisons,'" Senator Ward says. "The problem with that and most states that have run into trouble realize this too, the back end is what gets 'em. Because when you underfund it and understaff, usually what happens is you end up having violence whether its inmates, whether its officers. The federal courts have stepped in in California and basically dictated how their system would work in the future. And did a mandatory release. Fined them millions of dollars as far as what improvements their going to make to their system. If we don't take on this responsibility ourselves, somebody else will do it for us."
Resources for prison rape victims:
PREA hotline and reporting info:
Reporting an incident to Alabama DOC:
Equal Justice Initiative: