Federal takeover possible if Ala. doesn't remedy abuse at Tutwiler

Source: WBRC video
Source: WBRC video

WETUMPKA, AL (WBRC) - It's been seven weeks since the U.S. Department of Justice released a report about the conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka. In the past few days, several things have happened.

The first is that Governor Robert Bentley made a visit to the prison on Thursday of last week. It was his first visit since the report came out in January.  He also announced that the state has hired a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm called The Moss Group, which has expertise in criminal justice management.

"The first thing we're expecting is an opportunity to sit down face-to-face from the staff of the Department of Justice and we look forward to meeting with them, to talking about these sensitive issues at Tutwiler," Thomas said.

Lastly, FOX6 News spoke with a clinical psychologist who worked at Tutwiler for six weeks back in 2012. Dr. Larry F. Wood says he couldn't handle working there after that time.

"Almost all I did there as a psychologist was deal with one crisis after another. And the crises were created and fabricated by the circumstances. Obviously sometimes women would have arguments and have their own personal problems, but the behavior and attitude of the staff would create crisis particularly among these psychiatrically fragile people," said Dr. Wood.

He said the conditions at Tutwiler then were primitive and backward, calling it "an absolute embarrassment for the state of Alabama."

According to an Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman, Dr. Wood was hired by the mental health provider for ADOC. It is important to point out that Dr. Wood worked at Tutwiler before the National Institute of Corrections' assessment of Tutwiler was complete. He was employed at Tutwiler when the Equal Justice Initiative filed a complaint with the Department of Justice about the sexual violence at Tutwiler.

"I went in with great ambition and great hopes to add something to the situation use some of the experience that I've had knowledge of penology techniques and so forth, but it was much worse than I expected," Dr. Wood said. "It was pretty much a continuous debasing and dehumanizing process."

Dr. Wood said he heard stories of rape, inmates being beaten and other sorts of cruel behavior.

"I've worked in prisons for most of 30 years, and I've never seen anything like this," he said.

Dr. Wood said he saw an overall lack of ideas for change. He said the state's universities could help reform the prison system all over the state.

Alabama Officials Respond

The 36-page report revealed that prison staff have raped, sodomized, fondled, and exposed themselves to prisoners; coerced prisoners to engage in oral sex; engaged in voyeurism, watching women while they shower and use the toilet; and subject women to a "daily barrage of sexually explicit verbal abuse."

Gov. Robert Bentley and Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas have said that the report does not accurately portray current conditions at Tutwiler and progress that has been made in the past year.

Some of those changes already underway, according to Commissioner Thomas, were part of a of a 58-item action plan that Thomas announced in January 2013. 

Commissioner Thomas said that state officials do not expect a lawsuit to be filed.

"The first thing we're expecting is an opportunity to sit down face-to-face from the staff of the Department of Justice... and we look forward to meeting with them, to talking about these sensitive issues at Tutwiler," said Thomas.

Abuse Continues to make headlines

Others say the unconstitutional conditions at Tutwiler Prison for Women continue.  Fox6 has spoken to several recently released inmates who say the abuse is still on-going.

Family members of incarcerated women say there have been some small changes, but that the environment is still toxic and in desperate need of reform.  They say it is still dangerous and there is an environment of intimidation."

Just last week, The New York Times addressed the ongoing problems at Tutwiler.  They featured the story of Monica Washington, who was raped by a prison guard.

Monica Washington was raped by a prison guard and gave birth to a daughter three years ago. State officials decided to charge the guard, Rodney Arbuthnot, with "custodial sexual misconduct" rather than a more serious crime and he served only six months in jail.

In a telephone interview from Tutwiler, Ms. Washington told the Times that prisoners are still fearful and that conditions remain bad. "Right now, for me personally, it's still the same as far as the officers," she said. "It's like an act of Congress to get the things you need just to live. It's inhumane for inmates to be here, period."

What's Next?

The January DOJ report notified corrections officials that if they were unable to reach a resolution regarding concerns about sexual abuse, the attorney general might initiate a lawsuit 49 days after state officials had been notified.  Saturday marked the 49th day since the report's release.

After the investigation, DOJ officials will either close the probe if no evidence of systemic constitutional violations is found or, if violations remain, will "attempt to work with ADOC to remedy them."

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