WETUMPKA, AL (WBRC) - The window of opportunity for the federal government to file suit against the state of Alabama begins Monday. A suit would be the first step of many for the federal government to take over Tutwiler Prison for Women.
A letter dated January 17 from the Department of Justice to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said the Attorney General could file suit if they can't reach an agreement:
We are obligated to advise you that, in the event that we are unable to reach a resolution regarding our concerns with regard to sexual abuse, the Attorney General may initiate a lawsuit pursuant to CRIP A to correct deficiencies ofthe kind identified in this letter anytime following the date that is 49 days after appropriate officials have been notified of them. 42 U.S.C. § 1997b(a)(1).
The prison made national news after FOX6 reported on a Montgomery law firm's federal complaint alleging widespread sexual abuse against inmates back in 2012. That complaint included accusations of officer-on-inmate sexual violence at the facility.
The United States Department of Justice launched an investigation after the accusations were made. Because of conditions at the prison, the DOJ accused Alabama of violating inmates' constitutional rights.
FOX6 News spoke with Alabama Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas last week. He says he believes Tutwiler is a safe prison for the women incarcerated there.
"We're not expecting a lawsuit at this time, the first thing we're expecting is an opportunity to sit down face to face from the staff of the Department of Justice so that's our first expectation and we look forward to meeting with them, to talking about these sensitive issues at Tutwiler," he said.
Commissioner Thomas also says they've initiated 58 different reforms at Tutwiler that came from a 2013 assessment by the National Institute of Corrections.
Thomas has turned down all of our requests to visit the prison.
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley recently toured the prison, saying misconduct wouldn't be tolerated. Bentley said he would be bringing in a nationally recognized consulting group to help implement reforms.
Gov. Bentley has yet to agree to an interview on Tutwiler. FOX6 has been requesting a sit-down, long-form interview with the governor for more than a year.
More on the Department of Justice report
Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside Tutwiler for at least 18 years, according to the DOJ report. It says more than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only way for the prisoners to get basics like toilet paper and tampons.
The prison was built in 1942 and named after Julia Tutwiler, a woman called the Angel of the Stockades for her work to improve conditions for inmates in Alabama. More than 900 women live at Tutwiler, twice the capacity for which it was designed.
Abysmal staffing levels, abundant blind spots and only three cameras, according to the report, created a situation where sex among prisoners and with guards was rampant. Male guards have routinely watched women showering and once helped prisoners organize a strip show.
At least six corrections employees have been convicted of sexual crimes since 2009.
The Department of Corrections says conditions at Tutwiler were beginning to improve well before the Justice Department began its investigation in April 2013. Six months after the Equal Justice Initiative report came out in May 2012, the longtime warden and other top prison officers were replaced.
The National Institute of Corrections reviewed practices and policies at Tutwiler. Using those findings, Commissioner Thomas issued a wide-ranging plan in January 2013 that included recruiting more female corrections officers, pressing the Legislature for more money and changing several policies and procedures. Among them was a system to better investigate and track reports of assaults and abuse.
Monday on FOX6
Monday on FOX6 News at 5 p.m., FOX6 Anchor Beth Shelburne continues her investigation into Tutwiler. You will hear from a clinical psychologist who was hired at Tutwiler in 2012. He quit after two months because he said he was appalled at the conditions and the administration's lack of support for mental health services.
You can watch a live stream of our newscast online at www.FoxAlabamaLive.com and on the WBRC News app.