(Warning: This story contains adult content and language that may not be appropriate for younger readers and viewers. Discretion is advised.)
BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Her voice is low and husky from years of smoking, her southern accent not soft and genteel, but the sharp and staccato variety of the working class. It was among dozens left on the FOX6 editorial message line in response to a piece by WBRC general manager Lou Kirchen, who called for more transparency at Tutwiler Prison for Women.
"These women have been berated, put down and stomped on all their lives," she explains about the women in Tutwiler Prison. "Their pride, their esteem has been overwhelmed by what they've been through."
The "mental cruelty" of Tutwiler, she says, makes existing trauma for inmates even worse. She believes because of the chaotic, stressful environment and cruel treatment by Tutwiler employees, most women come out of Tutwiler worse off than when they went in.
"Them scars can run deeper than physical," she says.
This former inmate knows a lot about Tutwiler, because she's served time there on six different occasions. In order to protect the privacy of her family, she asked that we call her Amy, which is not her real name. She has two adult children, both in the Birmingham area, and has been working to repair relationships and move on with her life. We met with her at her sister's home in Center Point where she's been staying.
Amy says she wants people to understand the women of Tutwiler are human, and while prison shouldn't be a "summer camp or resort," the harsh conditions and overcrowding have created a violent, dangerous environment. She says she's seen officers beat an inmate and she suffered a head injury when another inmate "jumped her" during an argument over what to watch on TV.
"Society needs to know that we're not bad people, we just made bad choices," she says.
It's hard to think of another state institution that's gotten more bad press lately than Tutwiler. The prison, built in 1942, consists of several putty-colored, low slung buildings, surrounded by razor wire. The only structure within its walls rising higher than one story is a hulking guard tower, the first indication that you're approaching a prison when you glimpse the compound sprawled right along a busy stretch of Highway 231 North in Wetumpka, Alabama. The facility was built to house 400 women. The Department of Corrections says the current population is at 957.
Two federal reports document abuse at the prison, most recently a January 2014 letter to Governor Robert Bentley from the U.S. Department of Justice. In the letter, officials say corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside Tutwiler for at least 18 years. It describes a "toxic, sexualized environment" inside the prison, that included an inmate "strip show condoned by staff" and sexual abuse that is "grossly underreported."
We spoke with Alabama's Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas at his Montgomery office in March. He does not think the DOJ report gives a true picture of Tutwiler, because it doesn't includes the 58 reforms he has recently implemented at the prison. He would not point to specifics in the report that he believes are inaccurate.
"I would much rather spend the time engaging with them on the positive reforms that we've taken," he says of the DOJ's ongoing investigation at the prison, "developing a very positive relationship with them and making sure they understand that we take our responsibilities very seriously."
The Alabama Department of Corrections has not allowed us inside Tutwiler Prison, even though we've made multiple and ongoing requests since May 2012. That's when the advocacy law firm "Equal Justice Initiative," based in Montgomery, filed a federal complaint on behalf of fifty women alleging widespread sexual abuse by corrections officers who work at the prison.
When FOX6 first reported that complaint, our phones began to ring. Women called who had served time at Tutwiler, encouraging us to shine a light into the dark corners of the prison, where they say unspeakable things happen with impunity, and the souls of women already beaten down are systematically and routinely crushed.
Amy points to the widespread use of profanity and derogatory names as especially demoralizing to incarcerated women. She says young corrections officers often employ this approach when dealing with large groups of female inmates.
"They might come in and say, 'all right y'all bitches!' or 'all right y'all m-f'ers! I got my pen, I got my disciplinaries. I'm writing up twenty people today!'"
She and other current and former Tutwiler inmates we've interviewed and corresponded with, describe a similar environment where officers speak to inmates using cruel language.
When asked if officers used profanity on a regular basis, Amy quickly answers.
"Oh yes! Every day, they called us bitches and whores and sluts," she says.
In March, we asked Commissioner Thomas about changing that culture. He says the change is happening through education and training for employees, so they know the proper protocols on how to communicate with female inmates. If officers violate protocols, Thomas says, they'll face repercussions.
"I want my staff to turn this into a good thing," Thomas says. "We have a great opportunity to affect lives of women, and when you're talking about the lives of women, not only are you talking about that particular woman, you're talking about their current children, their future children, their relationship with their brothers, their sisters, their mothers, their grandmothers and to me, that's very important."
Over the years, Amy says she talked with "I and I," ADOC's Investigations and Intelligence Division, several times about the way officers were treating inmates.
"They heard me out but they did nothing about my concerns," she says.
But Amy also says officers were just beginning to curtail their use of profane language when she was last at Tutwiler in March 2013. She hopes this was a sign that more positive changes are taking place, but says there is a long way to go.
In addition to using cruel language, Amy says officers would also routinely take away inmates' personal items for no apparent reason. During her years at Tutwiler, she claims officers took away her panties, socks and a radio, not for disciplinary reasons, but "just because they can." And because inmates are allowed so few personal possessions, Amy says, officers know it's especially cruel to target those items as a way to "put inmates in their place."
As far as the sex abuse, Amy says officers would prey on indigent inmates with little family support, because those inmates are more likely to trade sex for supplies. Amy was never propositioned by an officer, but says she witnessed an officer offer supplies and makeup to an inmate in her dorm, in exchange for sex. She says poor inmates not only give themselves up sexually to officers, but also to other inmates, just to get basic supplies.
"It's not so much a sexual relationship," Amy explains. "They're just wanting some shampoo and deodorant and toothpaste. Stuff to take care of themselves."
Amy's criminal problems began in 1986, when her addiction to opiates led to a string of crimes, including theft, check forgery and credit card fraud. She says she was in good company at Tutwiler.
"I would say 75 percent of them women down there are [in for] petty theft crimes for drugs," says Amy. "And it's sad that I had to go as many times as I did. There's no rehabilitation there."
She pauses and is quiet for a moment.
"This is what you get out of Tutwiler," she continues. "You get a new crime and a new partner to do with it."
That's because she and other inmates say Tutwiler offers little constructive programs for inmates, who spend a lot of time just sitting around. Amy believes better opportunities for inmates to learn and grow would help reduce repeat offenders.
"There's nothing to occupy your mind or time with," she explains. "There's nothing ongoing to keep you up with society."
After five stints at Tutwiler, Amy stayed clean and was out of prison for almost seven years, when she says an abusive relationship culminated in an incident in which she stabbed her boyfriend in self defense as he was choking her. Because of her previous felony convictions, she was charged with attempted murder and pleaded guilty to domestic violence. Her only violent charge sent her back to Tutwiler for a sixth, and she hopes, final time, in 2011. She was released from Tutwiler in March 2013 and served the 7 months remaining of her sentence at Birmingham Work Release.
At 52-years-old, moving on for Amy has proved extremely difficult. She has previously worked as a waitress and in a doctor's office, but has had no luck securing a job. She says she's filled out between ten to fifteen job applications, but has gotten no interest. A criminal past can be a lifetime sentence for women. Long after their time is served, it can follow them like a dark, silent shadow, casting a gloom over their hopes, dreams and wishes to move on and make a better life.
Amy's eyes fill with tears as she describes how lost she feels in the outside world.
"How am I supposed to start my life over? How am I supposed to not go back? I've tried places," she says, "And everybody gives me the runaround."
I ask Amy why she contacted FOX6 and she says she wanted to speak out on behalf of the women who are still incarcerated at Tutwiler. She hopes with greater awareness, other women won't endure the long and painful cycle of addiction and crime that she has. She believes that can only happen if conditions at Tutwiler improve dramatically and quickly.
"The environment (of Tutwiler) is just like a ticking time bomb," she says. "I can't believe something worse hasn't happened."