WETUMPKA, AL (WBRC) - It's been a little more than a week since FOX6 was one of several media crews allowed inside Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka and since then, the Alabama Department of Corrections has responded to several of our follow-up questions.
The prison is the focus of a federal investigation into sexual abuse of inmates by prison staff, with the U.S. Department of Justice writing in a January letter to Governor Bentley, "For nearly two decades, Tutwiler staff have raped, sodomized, fondled and exposed themselves to prisoners."
The letter details a "toxic, sexualized environment" where inmates "universally fear for their safety."
The prison has been under intense media scrutiny since the allegations first came to light. FOX6 WBRC has now filed over a dozen stories about sexual abuse, cruel treatment and a lack of proper investigations inside the prison.
During the course of our coverage, some of our viewers have expressed concern about why we're covering the story, why people convicted of crimes deserve consideration and why the issues surrounding Tutwiler Prison are newsworthy.
We are aggressively covering this story because the documented history of rape, sexual abuse and harassment at the prison is unprecedented and wrong and it needs to be fixed. An unsafe prison does not make Alabama safer.
We will continue to follow the investigation and reforms ADOC is implementing to remedy the prison's long history of prisoner mistreatment. The tour of Tutwiler Prison on May 16, 2014 was the first time our cameras or crews have been allowed inside the prison since we began making requests in May 2012.
Our tour began at 9 a.m. After driving through the prison gates and parking, we joined the other media crews in a quick meeting with ADOC officials, led by Commissioner Kim Thomas.
Prior to entering the meeting, we were each required to hand over our driver's licenses and cell phones to prison staff.
Commissioner Thomas first introduced Tutwiler's new management team. Warden Bobby Barrett has been in place since former warden Frank Albright was reassigned in November 2012.
In 2013, Barrett was joined by two new, female assistant wardens, Gwendolyn Tarrance and Deidra Wright. Commissioner Thomas also introduced Dr. Wendy Williams, who assumed her newly created position in April, Deputy Commissioner of Women's Services. This entire group accompanied us for the duration of the tour.
In its letter to Governor Bentley, the DOJ pointed to the prison's failure to "adequately respond or investigate allegations of sexual abuse and harassment" as a contributing factor of Tutwiler's "toxic sexualized environment."
Commissioner Thomas said one of the highest priorities in reforming Tutwiler is improving the investigative process in cases of potential abuse.
One of the additions recently is a new surveillance system. Commissioner Thomas said it will provide "a new era of accountability," and also eliminate numerous blind spots in the prison, where sexual assaults and abuse have occurred.
What advantage do the cameras give the prison in investigations?
"The ability to investigate or clear allegations, so we find they have no basis," Thomas said, "but also to make sure that we have the real proof that we need to go after these people who continue to violate the regulations and training we provide."
So far, 300 cameras have been installed throughout the prison, with a centralized control center located near the prison's front lobby. ADOC officials pointed out the cameras on the ceiling in the dining hall, a first stop on our tour.
Washington-based consulting firm "The Moss Group" is helping implement reforms at Tutwiler, and worked with prison staff to identify the best placement for the cameras.
Commissioner Thomas said the system was purchased using $1.4 million appropriated by the legislature, and the project is currently under budget at "somewhere around the million dollar mark."
He added the system should be up and running by July 15 this year.
The next stop on our tour was inside the main building of the prison where inmates are housed. We entered one of the "intake" dorms, where inmates come first and stay for several weeks, before they receive their classification status and housing assignment.
Approximately 86 women dressed in white uniforms were in "Dorm A" the day we were there, and the majority of them were sitting or lying down on their beds. Two rows of bunk beds fill the echoing space and the room appeared to be filled to capacity.
Because there are so many women housed together, there is little to no open space. ADOC officials told us before the tour began that they would not allow us to interview any inmates and we complied with that policy.
But many of the inmates appeared to be interested in speaking with us, and at one point during our tour, a group began shouting "help" and "we want to talk to you!"
Several pay phones were on the wall at the front of the dorm and ADOC officials said the phones provide one avenue by which inmates can report sexual assaults or abuse.
By dialing #77, inmates are connected to an investigator who can take a report of abuse. Reporters were allowed to test out the system and Raycom News Network reporter Max Reiss, who was also on the tour, said the system appeared to work.
As ADOC officials were explaining the phones, two inmates tried to get my attention and shook their heads at me. Shortly after this, Tutwiler officials quieted the inmates and told them to face the other direction, away from our cameras.
ADOC officials said inmates can also find pre-addressed, stamped envelopes in the law library, that they can use to mail in a complaint directly to the Investigations and Intelligence division of ADOC.
"No one here at the facility sees it and it goes straight to our investigations division," explained Dr. Wendy Williams, as she held up an envelope.
Dr. Williams also says PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) coordinators visit the prison daily to spend time with inmates, and have developed a good relationship with the women at Tutwiler.
This is part of an effort to mitigate the "clear, deliberate indifference" the Department of Justice says Tutwiler staff has maintained regarding the harm and sexual abuse of women prisoners.
The DOJ letter, along with an earlier report by the National Institute of Corrections said that many women were afraid to report incidents of sexual abuse because of retaliation by prison staff.
"The Commissioner has encouraged them (PREA coordinators) to spend as much time here as possible, so that if an inmate is seen talking to the PREA coordinator, that it's not necessarily going to be assumed that it's about a PREA incident," Dr. Williams said.
No PREA coordinators were pointed out to us during our visit.
We emailed a follow-up question after our tour, asking for the exact number of PREA coordinators who visit the prison.
"Tutwiler has an institutional PREA Compliance Manager on staff. This person works closely with Regional PREA Coordinators who visit Tutwiler at least two to three times each week," ADOC spokesperson Kristi Gates responded.
Another concern addressed repeatedly in the DOJ letter is the lack of privacy in Tutwiler's bathrooms.
"A specific type of sexual abuse that occurs frequently at Tutwiler is male officers unnecessarily viewing prisoners who are naked or performing bodily functions," the DOJ wrote about Tutwiler's bathrooms.
At least a dozen former inmates FOX6 has spoken with have expressed concern about this happening to them.
A former inmate named Summer Jacobs who served time from 2010-2012 said she was scared to take a shower because guards would treat the bathrooms like their own personal peep show.
"You can hear them talking about inmates that they saw," she said. "'Did you see that girl in there?'" they would say, according to Summer, "or, 'she was hot,' or 'did you see that lady in there? she was so fat!' They did not hide it," Summer said.
Commissioner Thomas said that sexualized culture is changing through new policy, training and privacy measures the prison is implementing.
ADOC staff took our tour into the bathrooms for Dorm A, which you can enter directly through the dorm. The toilets have new privacy partitions between them and the showers have been outfitted with curtains.
At the time of our tour, the bathroom for Dorm A was the only one in Tutwiler with these new privacy features, but Commissioner Thomas said the plan is to add the same privacy features to all of Tutwiler's bathrooms. He also said all of Tutwiler's bathrooms now have a saloon-style door between the toilets and showers.
In an email on Thursday, May 22, ADOC spokesperson Kristi Gates indicated more progress has been made in the bathrooms.
"The partitions were installed in Dorm B earlier this week and we anticipate the shower curtains going up tomorrow," Gates wrote. "We expect the partitions and shower curtains to be installed in all dorms fairly soon."
Back to our tour, Warden Bobby Barrett pointed out a policy change surrounding the showers that should also help improve privacy and eliminate opportunities for male officers to view naked inmates in the showers.
Fifteen minutes before each "count time," when the inmate population is accounted for by corrections officers, all the showers are cleared. Warden Barrett also said the entire Tutwiler staff has undergone cross-gender training, so officers understand the proper boundaries between themselves and inmates, and that training is an ongoing effort.
Another area of concern cited in the DOJ letter was Tutwiler's "dangerously low staffing level."
Commissioner Thomas said he asked his staff to look at ways other states are successfully recruiting new officers and as a result, in January ADOC expanded its recruiting division from one person to four people.
He said recruiters continue to visit places where women are, whether it's churches, associations, college campuses or job fairs, in an effort to increase female staffing. Recruiters are also charged with selling a job that has gotten a lot of bad press recently.
"We are focusing on recruiting," Thomas said, "and making sure that we're selling the idea that being a correctional officer is an interesting, rewarding job."
Dr. Wendy Williams said the efforts are starting to pay off, with 15 percent of the last Alabama Correctional Academy graduating class being women, a number they haven't seen in four years. The numbers are even more promising for the current class.
"We still have 14 female correctional officers enrolled in that class," said Dr. Williams, "and we expect to graduate all of those, hopefully, and a good many of those will be coming to Tutwiler."
After spending about 15 minutes in Dorm A, our tour moved through the main hall of the prison, passing the other dorms that also appeared to be filled to capacity.
Some inmates waved at us as we walked by, while others stared out expressionless from their bunks. ADOC officials quickly led us out an exit toward the "trade school," run by J.F. Ingram State Technical College.
President Dr. Hank Dasinger led our tour through the educational facility that sits adjacent to Tutwiler Prison, enthusiastically detailing the career technical training programs and GED prep program they offer.
As we walked through the facility, we saw small classes of female inmates learning upholstery, cosmetology and welding. The women in class appeared engaged, without the faraway, glazed look of the inmates we saw earlier just sitting in the dorms.
Approximately 150 women attend classes at the facility each day, but Tutwiler's overall population is over 900. The only thing that stands in the way of program expansion is money, according to Dr. Dasinger.
One project already paid for at the prison is construction of a new receiving area and medical unit, scheduled to begin in October of this year.
A building that used to house Tutwiler's sewing factory will be outfitted with sixty beds for an intake dorm and adjacent to that, a 21 bed prison infirmary.
The project will allow prison officials to move some beds and finally provide more living space inside the main dorms of the prison. Commissioner Thomas said it's a 365 day project that should be completed by October 2015.
A more dramatic change for Tutwiler could come from a $3.5 million appropriation for fiscal year 2015, already earmarked for use to open the Wetumpka Women's Facility, which is now just a series of empty buildings that ADOC acquired in 2010, down the road from Tutwiler Prison.
Our tour headed that way, where Thomas led us into a "cottage," one of a series he said could one day house 300-400 women.
Thomas said ADOC has already done extensive repair work on the buildings, including the HVAC, plumbing, electrical and roofs. Right now they are focused on interior renovations, which are clearly needed, and later they will add exterior fencing and lighting to make the facility secure.
Commissioner Thomas said the potential is huge, with the facility one day serving as a transitional space for women who are close to their release dates.
There is also a nearby educational facility they hope to renovate, which could include everything from indoor classrooms to outdoor garden space. ADOC officials are clearly excited about the possibilities of moving Tutwiler Prison into the 21st Century.
"It's taking the department to a new level," said Thomas. "Everything we are doing is geared toward inmate safety. They have to feel safe."
Calls to the DOJ in Washington have not been returned, but the January letter to Governor Bentley gave notice of an expanded investigation.
"If we find violations, we will inform you of the findings and attempt to work with ADOC to remedy any violations," the letter stated.
Commissioner Thomas told us in March that he was developing a positive relationship with DOJ and did not believe Tutwiler was in danger of being shut down.
When asked if ADOC has met with DOJ officials yet, ADOC spokesperson Kristi Gates responded via email, "We have been continuing to cooperate and have productive conversations with the DOJ. We anticipate a meeting soon."