MONTGOMERY, AL (WBRC) - It has been seven weeks since the U.S. Department of Justice released a report detailing multiple allegations of ongoing abuse at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka.
Monday is the beginning of a period during which time the DOJ may file a lawsuit against the state that could lead to a federal takeover Tutwiler.
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.
Gov. Robert Bentley has since this opinion piece in response to the situation:
As Governor, it is my responsibility to address the problems that exist in Alabama's prison system.
I want Alabamians to know that custodial misconduct in our correctional facilities will not be tolerated, especially when it comes to female inmates.
In June of 2012, Alabama's Corrections Commissioner, recognizing the need to address serious, longstanding, systemic issues within our prison system, proactively asked a national independent agency to come in and make recommendations on steps to reduce inappropriate staff conduct with female offenders and create a safer environment for the inmates. In January of 2013, Commissioner Thomas issued a directive with 58 recommendations. Some examples include enhancing inmate privacy by adding new panel doors in the bathroom areas, modifying policies to take into account gender differences and specific requirements of the women inmates, discontinuing the process of strip searches of inmates returning to the facility, enhancing the internal investigation procedures for inmate complaints, and continuing efforts to recruit much needed staff to safely supervise the inmate population.
Today, all 58 recommendations have been initiated and are close to completion.
Significant progress has been made at Tutwiler over the last thirteen months, and there is no question that more work needs to be done. We are working hard to address areas of concern in the facility.
With the Legislature's help, we increased funding for the Department of Corrections by approximately $24 million for FY 2014. That allowed for the hiring of 100 additional corrections officers system-wide and the installation of a camera system at Tutwiler. The department has also started a new recruiting effort to hire more female corrections officers which included a higher salary for officers willing to work at Tutwiler. I believe we need more female officers at Tutwiler, and we are working to get them hired.
Another top priority for the Department of Corrections is the renovation of the Wetumpka Women's Facility. Once completed, this facility will significantly reduce the number of inmates at Tutwiler by nearly 50% and make a significant impact on the overcrowding issues there. We are working with members of the Legislature right now to get additional money appropriated for the Department of Corrections in order to get the Wetumpka Women's Facility renovated.
I recently visited Tutwiler and saw first-hand the operations at the facility. I met with the warden and female correctional officers, and saw the inmates. I do not believe that the pervasive custodial sexual misconduct that existed in the past occurs there anymore. In isolated instances where it has occurred in the last three years, quick action has been taken to investigate and refer offenders to the appropriate authorities for prosecution.
We are moving in a new direction with Tutwiler, and are reforming the facility to make it safer for inmates and staff.
I have asked an expert group in criminal justice management and sexual safety in confinement to assist the Department of Corrections in continuing the reform efforts underway at Tutwiler. The Moss Group has a national reputation for helping criminal justice agencies and brings a lot of experience and best practices to Alabama. The Moss Group has worked in all 50 states with some of the most respected professionals in corrections. Specifically, the Moss Group will help with the culture, staffing and safety assessments, policy review and development, technical assistance and training on internal investigations and various other matters.
The issues at Tutwiler cannot be changed overnight, but with the reform efforts already underway and the assistance of the Moss Group, we will continue to implement best practices so Tutwiler can become a better facility for the inmates and the staff.