Both incarcerated women and the U.S. Department of Justice agree: The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., is a hellish place. In a 36-page letter that the DOJ issued to the Alabama State Governor Robert Brentley in January, the agency declared, “The State of Alabama violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution by failing to protect women prisoners at Tutwiler from harm due to sexual abuse and harassment from correctional staff.”
Federal investigators found that, for nearly two decades, staff members at Tutwiler have sexually assaulted women and compelled them into sex to obtain necessities, such as feminine hygiene products and laundry service. Women who report sexual abuse are placed in solitary confinement, where they are given lie detector tests and are frequently threatened by other staff.
But while the DOJ’s letter — and conditions in Tutwiler — made headlines, less attention has been paid to the activism and organizing by women inside Alabama’s prisons. During the department’s investigation, for example, it received 233 letters from women currently incarcerated at Tutwiler detailing a host of concerns about the sexual abuse they’ve either personally experienced or witnessed. This figure does not include the letters that women have been sending to the Department of Justice and other government entities for years before the investigation was launched. When incarcerated, sending testimony letters is a potentially dangerous action. Women risked prison staff opening their letters and reading their complaints — and retaliating against them. Two hundred thirty-three women decided to take that risk. (more…)