Women Watched, Strip-Searched, Raped by Male Prison Guards: How Can We Have Real Reform?
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.
The sixth, the guard who raped and impregnated the woman, was sentenced to six months in jail. The woman carried the baby to term and gave birth in prison, where she remains today, serving out the remainder of her 20-year sentence for acting as an accessory to robbery.
Charlotte Morrison, an attorney with EJI and part of the team assigned to investigate Tutwiler, says she and EJI have watched the ADOC fail to hold offending officers accountable. What they see instead are women punished for reporting misconduct. “The warden at Tutwiler places women in segregated units, where they are treated like they have broken the rules and are being punished, unable to communicate with their family, access the yard or store.”
In 2011, EJI brought this information to the Commissioner of ADOC, Ken Thomas.
Morrison said Commissioner Thomas' response to EJI's report was, "We are not going to make any changes."
"We had asked to end the practice of segregation, change the leadership of the prison, and for cameras in the prisons, and to actually investigate claims of sexual abuse.”
Morrison said guards accused of sexual misconduct always maintain their employment with the DOC: “Maybe they were moved or maybe not. Sometimes they would just be moved to another prison in Alabama. We see the same officers being involved in one prison transferred to another. It raises questions about how seriously these concerns are being taken.”
Morrison emphasizes that it is critical to treat what's happening to these women as crimes, but the District Attorney overseeing Tutwiler has abdicated his responsibility to investigate and prosecute prison guards. The DA allows the prison officials — the very ones overseeing the guards — to conduct the investigations.
The circumstances in Tutwiler are stark. Morrison believes Alabama is far behind the rest of the country in instituting the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Passed by Congress in 2003, PREA was supposed to standardize protocols for reporting and penalizing rape in prisons.
“At PREA's core is zero tolerance for any sexual abuse or harassment. That means it's unacceptable in all forms,” said Jesse Lerner-Kinglake of Just Detention International, which combats sexual assault in prisons and jails.
But an attitude of nonchalant acceptance of rape in prisons persists. In 2012, after much agitation by advocates for prisoners' safety, Attorney General Eric Holder finally instituted PREA's binding standards. But it wasn't until August 2013 that the government began to audit facilities for compliance.
“The passage of the binding standards was meaningful, but it's just happening now, so it's too soon to assess PREA's success,” Lerner-Kinglake said.
Only a week after the Department of Justice released its findings on Tutwiler, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report that shows sexual abuse has risen by 11 percent throughout all prisons in the nation since 2008. While experts consider that this number may reflect a higher frequency of reporting than occurrence, it is clear that the impunity afforded criminal guards plagues all those sealed away from public sight.
Only 10 percent of reported acts of sexual misconduct in prison are ever “substantiated”—meaning an allegation is deemed to have occurred. Of that small fraction, only 1 percent of the guards are convicted and 20 percent keep their jobs.
“But that's just the tip of the iceberg,” says Lerner-Kinglake. Experts believe the actual number of assaults is likely far greater than what is reported.
The women at Tutwiler live in fear of the men who guard them, and for over 18 years the Alabama Department of Corrections has known this. Despite the urgency of these findings, Commissioner Thomas was more concerned with asserting to the media that he'd not been given enough credit for the minor remedial steps he's taken, such as instituting “sensitivity trainings."
The most dangerous place for a woman to be is in her own home, statistics tell us, where she is more likely to be assaulted, raped or killed. For women whose home is prison, the authorities seem bound to uphold that tradition.