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Federal report has new details of abuse at Tutwiler Prison for women

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The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women is a maximum security prison that houses the state's female death row. Source: WSFA The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women is a maximum security prison that houses the state's female death row. Source: WSFA
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FOX6 News will have team coverage of the National Institute of Corrections report on Tutwiler Prison for Women tonight at 5, 5:30 and 6 p.m. and a closer look at the report at 10 p.m.

Nearly seven months after a scathing report was issued by the Equal Justice Initiative, detailing evidence of "frequent and severe" officer-on-inmate sexual violence at Tutwiler Prison for Women, FOX6 has obtained a copy of an assessment on the facility issued by the National Institute of Corrections.

Four consultants worked on the assessment team from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), two men and two women. The team met with the now former Warden Frank Albright, staff members and inmates prior to a three-day visit at the maximum security facility.

The inmates who met with the consultant team were randomly selected and were given the choice to opt out. Several of them chose not to participate in the assessment, citing a fear of retaliation from the staff.

"Consultants have conducted many focus groups and rarely do we find inmates that verbalize an unwillingness to speak," said the report.

The assessment looked at eleven "domains" at the prison and spelled out the factors considered, including strengths, challenges and opportunities. The report also made recommendations to improve conditions at the prison.

[Click here to read the entire report]

The report assessed everything from the poor layout and inadequate design of the overcrowded prison facility to "control style management that has little regard for the prisoners," to a lack of training for the staff and an environment where "cleanliness and sanitation are not the standard."

But perhaps the most troubling of all the details in the report by the NIC are the ones that describe allegations of sexual abuse and a lack of what some critics would call simple changes that would minimize the possibility of future occurrences.

For example, the report identified many "blind spots" when discussing security aspects of the prison. The NIC team recommended removing blinds on office windows because "many acts of staff sexual misconduct have occurred behind blinds."

It also cites the four cells on death row, separated from a main corridor by solid doors.

"Management staff indicated that one officer had been terminated for engaging in sexual misconduct with death row inmates a few years prior. However the physical structure that enabled that behavior was never modified to minimize the possibility of future occurrences," said the report.

In that particular situation, the assessment team recommended placing a camera in the area or keeping the door open during rounds.

Some of the inmates and support staff told the assessment team they do not feel physically or sexually safe in the prison.

"The women and staff report that Tutwiler is a repressive and intimidating environment. Inmates reported being in fear of retaliation from staff if they reject staff's sexual advances. Additionally, they report that they feel that they cannot bring their complaints to the administration, as they will be locked down if they annoy or anger some administrators and staff."

The report explained that the consultants were not able to specifically verify these claims, but note that they were heard across several interviews.

Claims of sexual abuse is what led to the Equal Justice Initiative's investigation in June of last year. The non-profit legal aid group reported to the Department of Justice that more than 20 Tutwiler corrections employees have been transferred or terminated in the past five years for having sexual contact with prisoners.

According to court documents, six correctional officers have been charged with sex crimes since 2009. Only two of them served prison time.

In an interview with FOX6's Beth Shelburne last year, the Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner said the problems at Tutwiler are not unique. In fact, he characterized the problems at Tutwiler as part of a larger issue of prison rape and said corrections staff in other states deal with these same issues:

Beth Shelburne/FOX6 Anchor: "Is the nature of the issue of prison rape playing out the same way? Are guards being accused of doing this?"

Commissioner Thomas: "Well, I think it all is concerning. I mean, even if it's inmate on inmate, it's something that should not be allowed. It should not be condoned. We should take every effort we can to make these environments safe for these people, so I wouldn't say it's any different in any other state than it is in Alabama."

But an inmate we spoke with last year said Tutwiler is very different from other prisons. Summer Jacobs has served time for identity theft, forgery and fraud after getting caught up in drugs. Jacobs said the culture at Tutwiler is corrupt. She said officers use profanity, make lewd comments and verbally abuse the female prisoners.

It was not addressed in the NIC assessment, but Jacobs said there is widespread homosexual behavior between inmates and that it is often encouraged by corrections officers.

"It's free live porn for them. It's disgusting but its... that's what goes on down there. I know sometimes the girls say it's consensual, but its really not because... you can't tell those people no. I mean if you tell them no you're just going make your life a living hell," Jacobs told Fox6.

Watch: Beth Shelburne's interview with former Tutwiler inmate Summer Jacobs

Summer Jacobs was one of several former inmates we spoke with late last year. And their allegations of sexual abuse and corruption were a common theme.

Cleanliness, sanitation and privacy are also severely lacking at the prison, according to the report. The female inmates have no privacy from the main corridor and there are no barriers where they can change clothes, according to the NIC assessment. The showers and toilets are open and can be seen from by other inmates and staff, including male staff members.

"Inmates reported that when women are showering, male staff sit in the elevated officer's station observing them. They also noted that they are not given tampons, therefore, when they are showering together women menstruating will leak onto the shower floor, creating a sanitation/health issue for other inmates."

The warden told the assessment team that there is a "knock and announce policy" before male staff enters the bathrooms. But the male staff was seen entering these areas without announcing their presence. The assessment said "we could find no policies in place to ensure the limited privacy of the women offenders."

Staffing and training were also addressed in the 37-page report. There are few incentives for women to work at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, according to the NIC and the prison is understaffed with female officers.

Many Alabama Department of Corrections Staff members are young and lack work experience according to the report.

"The lack of training and professional boundaries and the stress associated with working in a prison environment serve to create a fertile ground for staff problems on the job," it cited.

Neither the staff nor inmates view the leadership favorable and refer to it is as "a fear driven leadership" that is "oppressive for both staff and inmates." The culture is described as one of "intimidation and undue harshness."

The conditions at Tutwiler are also on the radar of state legislators. In an interview with FOX6 last year, Senator Cam Ward said it's not popular to ask for more money for the prison system in Alabama. But he said the lack of funds leads to problems such as violence and overcrowding.

"The federal courts have stepped in in California and basically dictated how their system would work in the future. And did a mandatory release...fined them millions of dollars as far as what improvements their going to make to their system. If we don't take on this responsibility ourselves, somebody else will do it for us," Senator Ward said.

He has particular interest in these allegations because he is the Chairman for the Joint Oversight Committee for Prisons.

In a state released to FOX6 this morning, Ward said:

"I am concerned with the allegations that have been raised at Tutwiler. This report confirms that our state must do more to address abuse, overcrowding, and understaffing in our corrections system. I believe Commissioner Thomas was correct in asking for an outside, independent organization to come in and audit our system. The Bentley administration has been proactive in addressing these concerns, and I look forward to working with them to do whatever is necessary to address the challenges outlined in this report."

FOX6 has requested to tour the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, so far our requests have been denied by Commissioner Thomas.

Changes at Tutwiler

In recent months there have been some changes made at Tutwiler.

The Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas confirmed to FOX6 in November of last year that a new warden was assigned to Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. The former warden, Frank Albright, was reassigned to Kilby Correctional Facility. Thomas said the reassignment was not in response to the EJI complaint, even though the complaint called for his removal.

In addition to Albright's reassignment, women are no longer being placed in segregation when they make complaints.

But Bryan Stevenson with the Equal Justice Initiative says more changes need to be made.

Background

The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women is a prison for women of the Alabama Department of Corrections, located in Wetumpka, Alabama. All female inmates entering ADOC are sent to the receiving unit in Tutwiler. Tutwiler houses the state's female death row. Because of this, the ADOC classifies the prison as "maximum security."

Construction on the current Tutwiler Prison was completed in December 1942. The prison, built for $350,000, originally held up to 400 female prisoners.

The walls of one dormitory are painted in a medicinal pink in order to soothe inmates. In 2003 Tutwiler was overcrowded. During that year a judge declared that Tutwiler's conditions violated the U.S. Constitution.

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