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Women Watched, Strip-Searched, Raped by Male Prison Guards: How Can We Have Real Reform?

Those imprisoned at Tutwiler live in fear of the men who guard them.

Prisons and jails house over 2 million people in America. However bleak and undesirable the conditions of prisons are likely to be, they are, in fact, home to the people who live there. 

I walked through one of these homes recently. The Chief Deputy Sheriff of San Francisco, while giving me a tour of an out-of-use facility, invited me to take a look at the populated floor of the jail as well. I accepted the offer with some trepidation, but it wasn't until I entered the single-floor jail that I realized where my discomfiture came from: I was intruding into the home of a couple hundred men, most of whom were awaiting trial, none of whom had been asked permission for my drop-in visit.

I arrived during lunchtime and the atmosphere was lively. Some men were lounging on their narrow beds, others waving their arms through the little space between their four or five cellmates. None were out of sight from the passing guards, the Chief Deputy, or me, for a moment.

I had this experience in mind when I read about the women in Alabama's Julia Tutwiler Prison last week. On January 17 the Department of Justice sent a letter to the governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, declaring the conditions observed at the prison during a four-day investigation last April unconstitutional. The federal investigation — prompted by the findings of an Alabama NGO — found rampant occurrence of rape, sexual assault, intimidation, humiliation, and voyeurism in the women's prison. The 954 women held at Tutwiler had no corner of safety from the roving prison guards, one-third of whom have a standing allegation of some sort of sexual misconduct. These crimes recurred in a place where nothing is hidden, and yet there is no accountability.

After interviewing dozens of women and reading 233 letters of complaint submitted by the women, the Justice Department found that the prison staff regularly rapes, sodomizes and fondles the women. When women shower, the guards are watching; when women return from a day out at a technical training school, the guards require strip and cavity searches upon their return. Explicit sexual verbal abuse is directed at the women unceasingly.

The Justice Department's 36-page letter declared that if the state does not take immediate action to address its failure to protect the women at Tutwiler, the Attorney General would pursue legal recourse.

The Department of Justice has found conditions at Tutwiler unconstitutional before — 18 years ago. Though the investigation at that time scrutinized the poor provisions of medical and healthcare, it also discovered prison guards rewarding inmates who had sex with them with food, cosmetics and money. The Alabama Department of Corrections did nothing to rectify the conditions.

Nor did it do anything in 2007, when the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics found that women in Tutwiler experience the highest rate of sexual assaults in the nation. Following the state's apathetic response to the findings, the rate of assault accelerated, as BJS's statistics updated in 2013 reveal.

Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, is Alabama's main recourse for legal defense for the indigent and has been leading the call for genuine reform in the state's prisons. In 2010, a federal judge appointed EJI to investigate Tutwiler after one woman became pregnant after being raped and sodomized by a guard.

EJI's investigation found that only six guards had ever faced disciplinary action between 2009 and 2011, in large part due to the Alabama Department of Corrections withholding or inaccurately reporting the complaints it receives. Four of the men spent no time in jail; the fifth man spent a day in jail.