DOJ looking into Alabama prison sex abuse claims

May 28, 2012

Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. –  Rape, sexual assault and harassment from male guards are a way of life for prisoners at an Alabama women’s prison, according to inmates past and present, and the Justice Department is looking into the allegations.

Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama. © 2010 ACLU of Alabama

Stephanie Hibbett spent a year locked up at the Julia Tutwiler Prison. She said in her time there, men had unrestricted access to the showers and bathrooms and would often make comments about female inmates’ bodies, both to the women and among themselves.

She herself was a victim, she says. A guard kissed her and groped her breasts and buttocks while she was cleaning a trailer, she said. That sort of abuse was common, the 31-year-old said.

“A lot of it goes on in the middle of the night when no one thinks anyone is listening,” she said. “I didn’t sleep a lot. You’d see a woman get up and go into the bathroom and a guard go in after her and another one stand watch. Nobody would say anything. A lot were too scared.”

The Justice Department investigation comes after legal aid group Equal Justice Initiative filed a complaint on May 22 asking it to look into allegations, based on interviews with more than 50 women incarcerated at the maximum-security prison. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined further comment.

Alabama Prisons Commissioner Kim Thomas told The Associated Press that the department isn’t launching a separate investigation into the recent allegations because it already aggressively pursues any reports of sexual abuse. He said the Justice Department has not yet contacted the state about the claims. 

“We’ve been very, very proactive in hunting down and investigating thoroughly any complaint we’ve received,” Thomas said. “We’ve taken swift administrative action against any officers or employees who are found to have violated this. The first offense means dismissal.”

Equal Justice executive director Bryan Stevenson said women are routinely punished for reporting sexual abuse or trying to speak up about it.

The group’s report claims that women who say something are often placed in segregation where they are deprived of contact with the outside world and do not have access to recreation, programs or work assignments. 

An examination of court records show at least six corrections employees have been convicted for sex crimes against inmates since 2003. Of those, five were guards and one a laundry room employee. The charges range from sodomy to harassment. Of the six convicted, only two were sentenced to real time in jail — a guard received six months for impregnating an inmate, and the laundry room employee received five days for having sex with an inmate. 

Some of the sexual encounters were consensual, some weren’t and others were coerced, Hibbett said. Some guards would smuggle in contraband such as alcohol and marijuana in exchange for sexual favors. Other guards would use their authority and threaten to revoke privileges or time off sentences for good behavior if women didn’t perform sex acts. 

Consensual or not, sexual contact between inmates and corrections workers has been illegal in Alabama since 2004. It’s a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Hibbett was inside Tutwiler between April 2010 and May 2011. She was first locked up in Jackson County Jail for possession of forging instruments, but was transferred after escaping work release to visit her son in a hospital after he attempted suicide.

“Jackson County (Jail) is a Hilton compared to Tutwiler,” Hibbett said.

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