Corrections officers at the only women's prison in Alabama regularly sexually harass, abuse and even rape female inmates with few consequences, according to a new report by a civil rights organization.
Numerous female inmates at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., reported becoming pregnant after being raped by male correctional staff over the past five years, said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which investigated the allegations. Other sexual misconduct, including pervasive harassment, unwanted touching and invasion of privacy, is commonplace, Stevenson said.
Consensual sex between staff and inmates is strictly forbidden by prison regulations, but is also a regular occurrence, with staff requiring women to perform sexual favors in exchange for smuggled contraband goods, the report found.
"What we found is pretty shocking," Stevenson said. "We think there's widespread sex abuse and assaults of women by correctional staff."
Tutwiler, which holds more than 700 inmates, was identified by the Department of Justice in 2007 as the most dangerous women's prison in the country.
Kim Thomas, the Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner, said the agency was aware of the allegations. "This is a matter of grave concern to me," Thomas said in a statement. "Sexual misconduct of any kind, including custodial sexual misconduct, is not tolerated by this department."
Thomas did not address any of the specific allegations in the EJI report. The report's findings include allegations that inmates who reported sexual abuse by guards to senior corrections staff, including the warden, Frank Albright, say they were placed in solitary confinement, lost privileges and were subjected to verbal abuse.
"Many of them reported encounters with the warden that they characterize as abusive, threatening and intimidating," Stevenson said. "The women report that when you complain, you are placed in segregation and are subjected to very aggressive treatment by investigators and other staff. It is not an environment that encourages people to come forward with instances of abuse."
In his statement, Thomas said that the corrections department was "committed to improving security and providing for the safety of inmates and officers at Tutwiler."
The state's criminal justice system has also failed to aggressively punish guards who abuse inmates, Stevenson said. According to court records reviewed by EJI, six Tutwiler employees have been indicted on charges of sexual misconduct involving inmates since 2010. All of the charges were settled with plea bargains, and only one prison employee served more than six days in jail.
Stevenson said the Alabama attorney general's office had been alerted to the problem through lawsuits filed against the state on behalf of women raped and impregnated while they were inmates at Tutwiler. The state has aggressively fought to have the litigation dismissed. Suzanne Webb, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said the agency had no comment on the report.
The Alabama Department of Corrections, meanwhile, has underreported sexual misconduct at the prison in official reports, according to court records obtained by EJI. In 2009, the corrections department reported no instances of sexual abuse at the prison, even as two officers at the facility were indicted for sexual misconduct.
EJI has requested a criminal and civil investigation by the Justice Department into the alleged misconduct and the failure of Alabama authorities to oversee the prison and aggressively prosecute abusers. Xochitl Hinojosa, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in an email that the agency is reviewing the allegations.
A 2011 Huffington Post investigation found that there is widespread brutality in Alabama prisons and limited oversight by corrections officials or state law enforcement.
The report comes just days after the Justice Department finalized new regulations requiring state corrections facilities to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse. The new standards specifically call for jail and prisons to restrict the use of solitary confinement as a means to protect inmates who have reported sexual abuse. The standards are mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law passed with broad bipartisan majorities in 2003.
Nearly 10 percent of former inmates in state jails and prisons reported being sexually victimized by a corrections staff member or another inmate, according to the results of a survey released earlier this year by the Justice Department.