Both incarcerated women and the U.S. Department of Justice agree: The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., is a hellish place. In a 36-page letter that the DOJ issued to the Alabama State Governor Robert Brentley in January, the agency declared, “The State of Alabama violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution by failing to protect women prisoners at Tutwiler from harm due to sexual abuse and harassment from correctional staff.”
Federal investigators found that, for nearly two decades, staff members at Tutwiler have sexually assaulted women and compelled them into sex to obtain necessities, such as feminine hygiene products and laundry service. Women who report sexual abuse are placed in solitary confinement, where they are given lie detector tests and are frequently threatened by other staff.
But while the DOJ’s letter — and conditions in Tutwiler — made headlines, less attention has been paid to the activism and organizing by women inside Alabama’s prisons. During the department’s investigation, for example, it received 233 letters from women currently incarcerated at Tutwiler detailing a host of concerns about the sexual abuse they’ve either personally experienced or witnessed. This figure does not include the letters that women have been sending to the Department of Justice and other government entities for years before the investigation was launched. When incarcerated, sending testimony letters is a potentially dangerous action. Women risked prison staff opening their letters and reading their complaints — and retaliating against them. Two hundred thirty-three women decided to take that risk.
These actions of testifying are far from the first time women behind bars in Alabama have organized to effect change. Tutwiler was built in 1942 to hold 365 women. By 2002, Tutwiler housed more than 1,000 women. “Every dormitory was filled front to back with bunk beds,” described one woman for an essay in the anthology Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States. “The weather gets extremely hot in the summers — the heat index regularly rises over 100 degrees in the facility — and cold in the winters. … All the windows have been braced so that they open only a few inches at the top. Personal space is nonexistent, and security is very poor.” In recent letters, she asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation for speaking out about prison conditions.
In 2002, women filed a lawsuit against both the state and the Alabama Department of Corrections about the overcrowding, extreme temperatures and poor medical care. They also attempted to contact the Department of Justice and other outside organizations about the rampant sexual abuse, but their complaints received little attention. In response to the lawsuit, in December 2002, a federal district court judge declared Tutwiler constitutionally unsafe and gave state officials 30 days to develop a plan to remedy conditions.
But Alabama’s solution did not involve sentencing reform or the implementation of alternatives to incarceration. Instead, it contracted with the private prison corporation Louisiana Correctional Services to relocate some of the women to a private prison in Basile, a small town in southwest Louisiana more than seven hours away.
In April 2003, Alabama sent 140 women to Basile. In June 2003, they sent another 100 women. Women were pulled out of educational and treatment programs and transferred to a prison far from family and with far fewer programs.
“Ironically, we were told that the Alabama Department of Corrections chose prisoners for transfer based on our good conduct at Tutwiler,” wrote the essay author. In a separate letter, she recalled that Basile offered only three programs — a GED course, a substance abuse program and an anger stress management program.
The move sparked even more organizing. Once in Basile, women who were serving long sentences formed the Longertermers/Insiders group.
“The group wanted to have a voice in the decision making,” wrote the essay author. “We feared that once in Louisiana, we would be ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ … We felt it was time to speak up, make a stand, and be heard.”
They worked together to help each other develop the skills to produce a political platform about the overuse of women’s incarceration, write articles for the local newspapers, write letters to legislative representatives, discuss legislation and talk with people outside prison about lobbying on their behalves.
“We … are continually striving to give input to a system that has not allowed us to be heard,” she stated.
Their efforts to have outside people advocate on their behalves resulted in the legislature establishing the Commission on Girls and Women in the Criminal Justice System in 2006. The commission did a two-year study and — finding that women’s needs and pathways to prison remained unaddressed in the current penal system — issued a series of recommendations that included expanding the use of community-based alternatives to incarceration and the closing and tearing down of Tutwiler.
In 2006, the women were transferred to another private prison run by Louisiana Correctional Services, this time in Newellton, La. In 2007, they were returned to Alabama. Most were returned to Tutwiler, which remains overcrowded and rife with staff sexual abuse.
In the meantime, women’s prison organizing continued — this time aimed at changing long-standing prison segregation policies that discriminated against women with HIV or AIDS. During the 1980s, many prison systems segregated people with HIV or AIDS from the rest of the prison population. While most states stopped the practice years ago, a handful, including Alabama, have continued. At Tutwiler, women with HIV or AIDS were confined to a separate dorm. They were only allowed to work cleaning jobs inside their dorm or in the dorm’s yard. They had to eat in their living space instead of being allowed into the dining hall with the general population. They were denied placement in other dorms and prohibited from participating in programs. Lastly, they were required to broadcast their status by wearing white armbands.
According to an investigation by The Atlantic, when Beverly Jacobs first arrived at Tutwiler, she applied to the religious dorm, but officials denied her a space because of her HIV status. She also applied to a support dorm for people recovering from substance abuse. Prison officials refused her application, again because of her status. They also refused her for a work-release program. In addition to being denied participation in programs, she faced other forms of discrimination even while held in a separate dorm. Her clothing was placed in a bin marked AIDS, washed separately and often returned dirty.
“I still have nightmares about that prison,” she told The Atlantic.
Jacobs’s experience was the norm. Dana Harley, a mother of two who was serving a 20-year sentence, recalls being confined to the dorm 24 hours a day.
“I felt caged,” she said in video testimony recorded by the ACLU. “I wanted to do things, I wanted to be a part of things, but I couldn’t.”
When her family visited, they were not allowed to use the main visiting room. When Harley’s four-year-old son visited, he asked why the other children were allowed to play in the larger visiting room while he and his mother were forced to remain in the smaller room.
“There’s just no way for me to explain to a four year old,” Harley reflected. At the prison’s clinic, nurses made comments like, “You’re going to die anyway,” in response to Harley’s questions.
In 2007, Harley wrote a letter to the ACLU describing her experiences. The ACLU had already spent two decades making several unsuccessful attempts — through both litigation and negotiations—to end this policy. The ACLU arranged for Harley to testify at a closed hearing about the segregation policy. It also filed another suit and, in 2012, a judge ruled that the policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. That ruling had a ripple effect, forcing Alabama and South Carolina, the other hold-out state, to end their HIV/AIDS segregation policy. The change meant that people with HIV would be allowed to participate in programs such as work release for the first time since the segregation policy began in the early 1980s. Now, Harley is able to attend religious services, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and other programs, all of which had been previously closed to her.
“It wasn’t for me,” she stated later in an interview with USA Today. “It’s for the people behind me coming in who aren’t as comfortable [with their status].” Now, if women with HIV or AIDS enter the prison, none of the other women know their status.
While these changes are welcome to those currently behind bars, the drastically increasing numbers of women sent to, and remaining inside, prisons should also push us to challenge the policies that are locking up so many. In 1978, Alabama held 257 women behind bars. This included women in local jails as well as in state and federal prisons.
Since then, the state has seen a 930.7 percent increase in its women’s prison population. By the end of 2012, there were 2,649 women in Alabama prisons. As of April 2014, Alabama has 2,686 women under some form of prison custody — a figure that does not include the unknown numbers of trans women held in men’s jails or prisons. Just over half the state’s prisoners have been sentenced for drug or property crimes. Of the 15,212 people in Alabama convicted of violent felonies, only five percent are women.
Regardless of whether they are incarcerated for violent or nonviolent offenses, the conditions women face once inside are horrific. In addition to pervasive, unchecked sexual abuse, women have reported inadequate medical care, excessive use of force, threats of force, and inadequate access to clean clothes, uniforms and hygiene products.
For those of us on the outside, given what we know about conditions in prison, it’s important to support incarcerated women’s efforts to change conditions. At the same time, we need to understand that more humane conditions should not be the ending point. We need to also challenge laws and policies that lock a drastically increasing number of women away from their families and communities in the first place.
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