From The New York Times
WETUMPKA, Ala. — For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation. More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.
But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation.
Now, as Alabama faces federal intervention and as the Legislature is weighing its spending choices for the coming year, it remains an open question whether the recent reports on Tutwiler are enough to prompt reform.
“Yes, we need to rectify the crimes that happened at Tutwiler, but going forward it’s a bigger problem than just Tutwiler,” said State Senator Cam Ward, a Republican from Alabaster who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re dealing with a box of dynamite.”
The solution, Mr. Ward and others say, is not to build more prisons but to change the sentencing guidelines that have filled the prisons well beyond capacity.
Just over half the state’s prisoners are locked up for drug and property crimes, a rate for nonviolent offenses that is among the highest in the nation.
“No one wants to be soft on crime, but the way we’re doing this is just stupid,” Mr. Ward said.
Still, in many corners of Alabama, a state where political prominence is often tied to how much a candidate disparages criminals, the appetite for change remains minimal.
The Legislature is in the middle of its budget session, working over a document from Gov. Robert Bentley that includes $389 million for the state’s prisons. That is about $7 million less than last year’s budget.
The Department of Corrections argues that it needs $42 million more than it had last year. Alabama prisons are running at almost double capacity, and staffing is dangerously low, said Kim T. Thomas, the department’s commissioner. He said he would use about $21 million of his request to give corrections officers a 10 percent raise and hire about 100 officers.
The odds of approval for that much new money are not great, but they are better this year than they have been in a long while, said Stephen Stetson, a policy analyst with Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a liberal policy group.
Even so, “for the average legislator, it’s still, ‘These bodies don’t matter,’ ” he said.
There is no ignoring the prison crisis. Even Stacy George, a former corrections officer who is challenging Mr. Bentley in the June Republican primary by promising to be “the gun-toting governor,” this past week issued a plan for prison reform. It calls for changing sentencing rules, rescinding the “three-strikes” law for repeat offenders, releasing the sick and elderly, and sending low-level drug offenders into treatment programs instead.
The federal government has stepped in to fix Alabama’s prison problems before, but it has been years since the state has faced a situation as serious as that uncovered by a series of damning investigations into Tutwiler.
“We think that there is a very strong case of constitutional violations here,” said Jocelyn Samuels, the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights for the Justice Department, who sent a 36-page report to the governor in January.
The toxic, highly sexualized environment, she said in an interview, has been met by “a deliberate indifference on the part of prison officials and prison management, who have been aware of the conditions for many years and have failed to curb it.”
The prison was built in 1942 and named after Julia Tutwiler, a woman called the Angel of the Stockades for her work trying to improve conditions for inmates in Alabama. More than 900 women live there, including some on death row, although the original building was designed for about 400.
The prison’s abysmal staffing levels, abundant blind spots and only three cameras created a situation where sex among prisoners and with guards was rampant, the report said. Male guards have routinely watched women showering and once helped prisoners organize a strip show. Sex is sometimes exchanged both for banned items like drugs and for basic needs like clean uniforms.
At least six corrections employees have been convicted of sexual crimes since 2009.
The Justice Department is still investigating Tutwiler, scrutinizing medical and mental health care there.
“It is just a culture of deprivation and abuse, not just at Tutwiler but in institutions across Alabama,” said Charlotte Morrison, a senior lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal organization that represents indigent defendants and prisoners.
In 2012, the organization asked the federal government to step in after its own investigation into Tutwiler showed rampant sexual abuse.
The Department of Corrections says conditions at Tutwiler were beginning to improve well before the Justice Department began its investigation in April 2013. Six months after the Equal Justice Initiative report came out in May 2012, the longtime warden and other top prison officers were replaced, said Mr. Thomas, the corrections commissioner.
He also asked the National Institute of Corrections to review practices and policies at Tutwiler. Using those findings, he issued a wide-ranging plan in January 2013 that included recruiting more female corrections officers, pressing the Legislature for more money and changing several policies and procedures. Among them was a system to better investigate and track reports of assaults and abuse.
“That report came about because I wanted an abundance of caution and to be transparent,” Mr. Thomas said.
But women recently released and still inside say life at Tutwiler has improved only marginally.
Monica Washington, who is serving 20 years for armed robbery, said she had been raped by a prison guard and gave birth to a daughter who is now 3 and living with relatives near Montgomery.
The guard, Rodney Arbuthnot, served six months in jail for custodial sexual misconduct. He has since moved to Texas. The courts only recently tracked him down, and the family is finally getting about $230 a month in child support.
In a telephone interview, Ms. Washington said that prisoners were still fearful and that conditions remained bad.
“Right now, for me personally, it’s still the same as far as the officers,” she said. “It’s like an act of Congress to get the things you need just to live. It’s inhumane for inmates to be here, period.”
Marsha Colby, a mother of six, served almost 10 years of a life sentence without parole for a murder conviction. Her premature son had been stillborn, and she buried him in a marked grave near her home. A medical examiner said the child had been drowned in a bathtub, but the conviction was overturned after a court agreed that the autopsy had been botched. She was released in December 2012.
She remains in contact with some Tutwiler prisoners, who she said were split on whether attention from the federal government was a good thing.
Sex is an important commodity there, Ms. Colby said. The inmates use it to get better treatment and secure contraband items that they can then sell to get food and other basics.
“The women do it for favors,” she said. “They get makeup, cologne, anything that’s stuff that is resellable. That’s how they make their money.”
She and others believe it will take a larger overhaul at the top of the Department of Corrections to fix the prison’s problems.
“It’s a primitive, very backward prison system,” said Larry F. Wood, a clinical psychologist who was hired at Tutwiler in 2012. He quit after two months, appalled at the conditions and what he said was the administration’s lack of support for mental health services.
“I’ve worked in prisons for most of 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “We need to back up and look at it with fresh eyes. The people who are running it don’t have the perspective to see what can change.”