WETUMPKA, Ala. (WIAT) — Following scathing criticism over sexual harassment and abuse of prisoners, the Alabama Department of Corrections has made changes in policies and prison facilities at Tutwiler Prison. The goal is to increase privacy and reduce the potential for abuse.
Representatives from the U.S. Dept. of Justice visited the Wetumpka prison in April of 2013 for an on-site investigation.
U.S. DOJ Civil Rights Committee outlined the findings of that investigation in a letter to Governor Bentley in January of 2014.
That letter included the following excerpt:
That letter also included the following:
“Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim T. Thomas, Warden Bobby Barrett, and Warden II Karla Jones have fully cooperated with our investigation. We recognize that Warden Barrett has recently assumed the position, and was not present at the Facility when much of the alleged misconduct took place. We commend ADOC and Tutwiler leadership for recognizing the need for reform at Tutwiler, and appreciate their receptiveness to our suggestions for change thus far.”
Commissioner Kim Thomas told WIAT 42 News that some of the changes were already in the works before the DOJ visit.
They’re making headway, but it won’t happen overnight. WIAT 42 News received a tour of the facility Friday. It was a bit rushed, but the tour took us through portions of the prison, the education facility on site and the site picked for the Wetumpka Women’s Center.
Recent privacy upgrades include the addition of shower curtains and privacy panels in the bathroom of the receiving dorm, Dorm A- where new prisoners are housed. At press time, the other dorms lacked shower curtains according to Thomas.
“Those shower curtains and those privacy panels are relatively new,” said Kim Thomas, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections. “We want to make sure that those go in all the facilities.”
There is also a new policy change to address prisoner privacy, particularly regarding the interaction of male guards with female inmates.
“We’ve changed practice with respect to when we count. We stop showering 15 minutes before any count is performed. As you know in the corrections world we have to account for a body and make sure that everybody is present. That’s a basic fundamental part of prison security,” said Thomas.
For security and accountability, the prison is installing cameras and mirrors throughout Tutwiler, according to Thomas.
He says that previously, there were only cameras in the infirmary, the mental health ward and the annex. The new cameras have already been installed in the cafeteria and Thomas says they plan to be finished with the installation by July 15th, 2014. The new system will include a central monitoring station, according to the commissioner.
“Those cameras, it’s not just nice to have cameras, but you have to have a very specific and well developed policy on the use and monitoring of these cameras,” said Thomas.
Another problem cited by the Department of Justice was the fear among prisoners to report sexual harassment or abuse and the failure to properly discipline officers for substantiated sexual abuse.
“We know that there’s been a fair amount of criticism in the past about the investigative process and we want to clean those up. That’s one of the things that we’re working on,”said Thomas.
He says the prison is aggressively educating and training staff about the Prison Rape Elimination Act, PREA.
The Department of Justice also found that there weren’t enough female officers.
“We have specific posts. We keep a female officer where required. We are recruiting female officers. We don’t have enough right now so there are posts we have that are gender specific that we keep a female officer on. We’re doing a lot of this, the privacy door, we clear the bathroom 15 minutes prior to count to alleviate when we don’t have the female officer on place,” said Bobby Barrett, Warden of Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
Prison administrators say they are happy with the recruiting efforts thus far, but they’re going to continue.
The DOJ also pointed out that there is no grievance process for prisoners.
Thomas said developing such a process is a very involved process and it has not been completed.
” I think we’re quite different than we were when the DOJ first came through and we’re going to be different next month and the month after that and next year we’re going to be different because we’re going to keep making progress,” said Thomas.
WIAT 42 News still doesn’t know what the prisoners think about the changes that have been made at this time. Interviews with prisoners were not allowed during the tour.
Copyright 2014 WIAT 42 News