Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based advocacy firm that filed suit over sexual abuse at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in 2012, is responding to recent developments regarding the Department of Justice investigation into conditions at the prison.
Charlotte Morrison, senior attorney at EJI, says they're encouraged that Governor Bentley is getting involved and is making reforming Tutwiler a priority, but she cautions, there is a long way to go.
"For the first time we have officials saying, this is not right," Morrison said. "In fact, this violates your constitutional rights. No person should be treated this way. This is the first time that we have officials saying that and that's really significant."
Governor Robert Bentley made a visit to the prison on Thursday of last week. It was his first visit since the DOJ report came out in January. That report called conditions at Tutwiler unconstitutional and described a "toxic sexualized atmosphere" that allowed abuse to continue for decades.
"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.
But Morrison with EJI says leadership at Tutwiler played a significant role in sustaining the culture of abuse and should be held accountable. She also pointed out the slow response by Alabama's Department of Corrections.
"The time to make changes, when you have women who are being sexually assaulted, who are being raped by the officers whose job it is to protect them, the time to act is immediately," says Morrison.
"I think there have unfortunately been significant delays in responding to the problems that we documented and began talking with the Commissioner (Thomas) about in 2011 and that's a problem. I think that sends a signal that needs to be corrected about how seriously we take these problems, how promptly we're going to respond to them and how we're going to prioritize them."
Morrison expects reforms to come quickly under pressure from a possible federal lawsuit. She says many of the reforms do not require extra money and are things ADOC could have fixed long ago.
"One of the things that the Department of Justice is focused on, was the fact that Tutwiler, the Department of Corrections is already collecting data about misconduct by their officers," explains Morrison. "They have the data, but they have not looked at it, or they have not formulated responses to that data."
Morrison calls the evidence of officer-on-inmate abuse at Tutwiler "massive," but says the system is still slow to respond to allegations.
One example, Morrison says, is 233 complaints against the same officer committing the same alleged misconduct.
"It's not a problem about resources," Morrison says. "It's a problem, we think, in terms of priorities and commitment and that's the kind of change that could happen immediately."
Inmates who have long endured punishment for reporting abuse finally feel they are being heard, says Morrison. She believes the DOJ findings have been critical in forcing Alabama officials to shift the way they understand the problems of abuse.
"What they have found is that the conditions at the prison violate the 8th amendment. The conditions are cruel and unusual and a lot has to be done in the prison to change that. I think the Governor is making that a priority and we're happy to see that," she said.