BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - One year after the Montgomery law firm Equal Justice Initiative filed a federal complaint alleging widespread sexual abuse against inmates at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, we follow up to find out how much progress has been made.
Since the accusations came to light, the National Institute of Corrections issued a scathing report about the conditions at Tutwiler and the U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation.
The Commissioner of Alabama's Department of Corrections Kim Thomas did not grant our request for an interview, nor did he answer written questions we emailed to his office. He also declined numerous requests by Fox 6 to go inside Tutwiler Prison.
Thomas did release a memo he sent to staff in January, outlining 57 changes that he expects at Tutwiler and other prisons. We do not know how much progress has been made on those proposed changes.
We do know that former inmates continue to file criminal complaints against officers employed by the Department of Corrections. One of those women is 39-year-old Lori Nelson of Tallassee. We spoke to Nelson at the small, one story house she shares with her husband, Mike Nelson. When we pulled up for the interview, the Nelsons were waiting for us on the front porch, adorned with American flags and birdhouses. They married in 2011, three years after Lori Nelson was released from prison.
Nelson served time at the prison from 2006-2008 after violating probation for a previous drug conviction.
We asked Nelson to describe what happened to her at Tutwiler. She says the incident occurred on a day she had been working in the yard. Prison rules allowed inmates that did outside work to take a shower when they were finished with their work, Nelson says.
"I went in there. Nobody was there but me," Nelson says. "And he come walking in and he just started touching me on my breast and then he touched me on my private part and I was like 'stop, stop,'" she describes. "He finally did and he said I better not tell nobody or he'll make my life a living hell."
Nelson stayed quiet about the specifics of what happened, but did talk to other inmates about incidents of abuse. She says the officer that groped her was a mean guard that inmates knew to avoid. At one point, some inmates created a petition to try to raise awareness about the abuse issues.
"Me and other girls, we signed papers and everything trying to let them know that it was sexual assault going on in there," Nelson says.
But that did little to change things and Nelson says the women were too afraid to name names of offending officers. "I didn't tell no names or nothing like that because I was scared. I really was," she says. "I feared for my life in that place. I've seen awful stuff."
Nelson decided to speak out last year when she heard the news that Equal Justice Initiative had filed a complaint on behalf of fifty women. She contacted the Department of Corrections Investigations and Intelligence Division and filed a complaint against the officer. Nelson says she met with investigators in Montgomery and told them about the incident and identified the officer in a photo lineup. She didn't hear anything until early April when she received a letter from the office of Elmore County District Attorney Randall Houston. The letter was sent to notify Nelson that the officer had been arrested, charged and the case was scheduled to be presented to the next Elmore County Grand Jury. Two weeks later, Nelson received another letter informing her that the guard would not be formally charged.
"Oh it just broke my heart," Nelson says of learning the news that the Grand Jury did not indict the officer.
Nelson was not called to testify and because grand jury proceedings are secret, we do not know what evidence was presented. We do know that Nelson's accusations against this officer are not an isolated incident.
A search of federal court filings reveals 19 cases in which the officer is named dating back to 1999. Allegations range from filing a false disciplinary report to sexual harassment and using excessive force against inmates. The Department of Corrections says the officer has been employed at his current classification since 2004, but the Alabama State Personnel Department says he has been a state employee since 1993. They were not able to tell us if he's worked for the Department of Corrections that entire time. We are not revealing the officer's name because he has not been formally charged.
Many of the cases against the officer have been dismissed when inmates failed to pay the $350 court costs. In at least two cases, the court ruled in favor of the officer and other Defendants within the Department of Corrections. Several cases are still pending including one in which the officer is accused of physically and sexually assaulting a disabled veteran in his 50's at Elmore Correctional Facility. Court documents describe the incident that occurred when the officer was doing a pat down search on the inmate. The plaintiff says the officer kicked his legs apart, grabbed his testicles and "squeezed them in the palm of his hand." The plaintiff goes on to say the officer then "jerked his hand away pulling on the testicles causing severe pain." The suit also claims the officer continued to harass the inmate after the incident and requests a mental exam for the officer, pointing to a pattern of the officer assaulting inmates. This case is still pending against the officer.
Court records indicate the officer has worked in at least five state prisons. The Department of Corrections tells us the officer is now assigned to Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery and does not work overtime at Tutwiler.
Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director with Equal Justice Initiative says his firm has visited Tutwiler a number of times since filing the federal complaint last year. We asked him if he's still hearing from women inside the prison about incidents of sexual assault.
"Yes, I think it's gotten better, but it has not been entirely eliminated" Stevenson says.
He's encouraged by a greater awareness of the problems at Tutwiler, but says the system still needs major structural reforms and improvements in communication, especially when it comes to victims. Stevenson also says overcrowding and understaffing continue to plague the entire Department of Corrections and this dynamic does not bode well for gender specific protocols.
"Because of understaffing, you're frequently pulling in officers from other prisons that don't know these protocols," explains Stevenson. "And so you'll still see officers violating these protocols and that's where more work needs to be done."
State Representative Allen Farley is vice chair of the Joint Legislative Prison Commission and says he has been appalled by the reports about abuse at Tutwiler. Farley is also a veteran law enforcement officer and served as former assistant Sheriff of Jefferson County before he retired. He says most corrections officers are honorable and it's not uncommon for inmates to accuse officers of wrongdoing, however 19 cases against one officer is unusual.
"Could some of these be frivolous? Sure, they possibly could," Rep. Farley says. But he also says it's questionable that the officer has worked in five different prisons.
"This man would not work for me," Rep. Farley says. "That would not be tolerated. You've got all kind of red flags."
Bryan Stevenson is also concerned about the prosecutorial process in these cases. He does not believe the state of Alabama is doing a good job of prosecuting criminal misconduct by officers in the Department of Corrections. Legal experts tell Fox6 these kinds of cases are hard to prosecute because inmates are not typically strong witnesses and many cases of abuse are hard to prove. Still, Stevenson says there needs to be a more robust effort by investigators and prosecutors to manage cases against the Department of Corrections just like they would manage a crime that took place on the street.
"I think a lot of it has to do with who investigates and the latitude that they have," Stevenson says. "The Department of Corrections has an internal division that does a lot of that and they have an important role to play, but I think our traditional law enforcement agencies, prosecutor's offices have to be involved."
Representative Farley points out questions about fairness can look bad for the Department of Corrections.
"There's a term that's used called home cooking," Rep Farley says. "It's a term that infuriates any administrator in law enforcement. You don't want to be accused of having your people take care of your people."
When asked if he believes home cooking is going on with cases filed against officers in the Department of Corrections, Rep Farley would not go that far.
"I'm going to say I hope not."
Lori Nelson does not know what her next step will be. She is on disability from mental problems that she says got worse in prison. She says she still has nightmares about what happened and she just wants justice for what happened to her.
"I knew I was in prison, I knew it wasn't going to be no vacation," Nelson says. "But I did what I was supposed to do. I didn't go there to be assaulted."