On Your Side Investigation: Big changes made at Tutwiler Prison for Women under settlement with US Dept. of Justice

On Your Side Investigation: Big changes made at Tutwiler Prison for Women under settlement with US Dept. of Justice

WETUMPKA, AL (WBRC) - It's been two years since Alabama's Department of Corrections (ADOC) reached a landmark settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka. A federal investigation found decades of widespread sexual abuse and harassment of inmates by prison staff.

Deputy Commissioner Dr. Wendy Williams gave WBRC a tour of the prison on May 9, 2017. Williams said abusive staff no longer works at the prison and current officers have undergone gender-specific training that has educated them on how to properly treat and manage female prisoners.

Williams also reported 65 percent of the Tutwiler staff is now female, a reversal from years past that the ADOC accomplished by offering a five percent pay differential to Tutwiler employees. A spokesperson for ADOC said the current state budget prohibits the department from offering the same pay differential department wide. Commissioner Jeff Dunn proposed legislation for a five percent pay increase for all correctional officers, but his proposal was not considered, according to the spokesperson. The increase in pay at Tutwiler was first offered in 2014 to help improve staffing levels.

"I think today, when you come into Tutwiler, you can feel the difference because the women feel safer," said Williams.

The sense of safety is due, in part, to a state-of-the-art surveillance system that placed more than 300 cameras throughout the facility. Williams said the cameras have helped hold officers and inmates accountable when there are allegations of wrongdoing. She said abuse allegations against officers have decreased dramatically and 85 percent of the prisoners at Tutwiler said they felt sexually safe at the prison in a recent inmate survey.

Williams said staff is also better trauma-informed, to help create an atmosphere more focused on rehabilitation, rather than punishment. For example, officers are urged to not raise their voices unless necessary, and to tell inmates what to expect during searches.

"Probably 70-75 percent of them have victimization in their past, so making sure our operational practices are designed to where they don't trigger more trauma while they are here is key to their rehabilitation," explained Williams.

WBRC toured the prison in 2014 when the prison first began implementing changes and Williams had just been promoted into the newly created position of Deputy Commissioner of Women's Services for ADOC. Williams has been charged with directly addressing the ongoing problems at Tutwiler and has worked to tailor the environment to better suit a female inmate population.

That includes the prison's first beauty salon, created in a small room that previously housed offices, as well as new privacy features in restrooms. Male officers must now announce themselves if they enter restrooms and they do not routinely search female inmates.

"I'm constantly watching and observing, and the fact that I'm a woman certainly helps," said Williams. "That doesn't mean that a man couldn't do the job, but I think the fact that I'm a woman does help a lot because I'm going to get things from a woman's perspective."

The DOJ agreement reached in 2015 laid out 44 provisions necessary to improve inmate safety and Williams said they have substantially complied with 39 of those reforms. Every six months, they can expect a visit from the DOJ and a court-appointed monitor to check on the progress. The next visit is scheduled for June and still left on the to-do list is launching seven new rehabilitative programs in the next 18 months.

Like many of Alabama's overcrowded prisons, space inside Tutwiler is at a premium. Even with approximately 100 fewer inmates than three years ago, Tutwiler is still at 156 percent capacity. One rehabilitative program we attended was held in a trailer behind the main prison.

"We need seven classrooms eight hours a day, and we don't have those right now," said Williams. "We're in the process of looking at some areas in this facility to renovate, just so we can do that."

Williams said a new women's prison would give them a much better space for rehabilitative programs, but admitted they have been able to implement many important changes at Tutwiler without a new building through educating staff on how their interactions with inmates can have a positive or negative impact.

"Just changing the culture was huge," Williams said. "We're going to respect each other here."

Click here to view an exclusive walk through of the prison.

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