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Alabama women prisoners subjected to frequent sexual abuse by guards, report says

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Ilona Lo Iacono
WVoN co-editor 

Women prisoners in Alabama are subjected to “frequent and severe” sexual violence by male correctional officers, according to a complaint filed with the US Justice Department last week.

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), filing the complaint, called for a “swift and thorough” federal investigation into the widespread sexual abuse of inmates at Tutwiler Prison for Women.

Tutwiler, Alabama’s only women’s prison, holds more than 700 inmates in its closed-security section.

A 2007 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that it had the highest rate of sexual assault of any US women’s prison, and the eleventh highest rate of sexual assault among all evaluated prisons across the nation.

The “most visible and striking evidence” of Tutwiler staff members’ abuse of incarcerated women is the resulting pregnancies, which have been “numerous” over the past few years, according to EJI’s findings.

The organisation says that common forms of sexual misconduct toward female inmates by male correctional staff include unwelcome sexual touching, harassment and taunting, and verbal abuse.

Women incarcerated at Tutwiler reported that they have virtually no means of preventing male guards or other staff from watching them change clothes, shower, or even use the toilet. Inmates claim that male officers frequently stand in the toilet and shower areas of the prison.

Guards have reportedly smuggled contraband items, including toiletries and food, into the prison, demanding sexual favours from inmates in return for the goods. They have also committed numerous sexual assaults, sometimes using other guards as lookouts.

EJI believes that Tutwiler and Alabama Department of Corrections officials received dozens of complaints of sexual misconduct involving male staff and women prisoners between 2004 and 2011.

Responses by prison authorities to women’s complaints have reportedly ranged from laughter to punitive action against the alleged victims.

Women who report sexual abuse at Tutwiler are routinely placed in segregation by the warden, where they are deprived of telephone, mail and visit privileges and have no access to recreation, programs, or work assignments.

EJI says that inmates are not informed of the results of investigations conducted by the Department of Corrections, even when the claims of sexual abuse are substantiated and formal action is taken to terminate the officer.

More than 20 Tutwiler employees have been transferred or terminated in the past five years for having illegal sexual contact with inmates.

From 2009 to 2011, six correctional officers were convicted for criminal sexual abuse of women prisoners, but only one of those convicted faced more than five days in jail.

EJI executive director Bryan Stevenson said that the harshest sentence – six months in jail – was given to a guard who raped and impregnated an inmate. “The baby was born, and DNA confirmed it was his.”

Had the rape occurred outside prison confines, Stevenson added, the sentence could have been 50 years to life in prison.

Such lenient treatment of guards guilty of abuse “actually makes you think you can do this with impunity,” he said.

Sexual violence against inmates is “an ongoing thing, a daily thing,” according to Stefanie Hibbett, 31, a former Tutwiler inmate. She told CNN: “You see women raped and beaten, and nothing is ever done.”

Hibbett said she was the victim of sexual assault in November 2010. Although she told the prison’s warden about the assault, no charges were ever filed against the guard who allegedly attacked her. An Alabama judge dismissed a civil suit she filed in the case in August.

EJI has asked the Department of Justice to investigate the Alabama Department of Corrections’ failure to adequately protect prisoners from sexual violence by Tutwiler employees.

Kim Thomas, the Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner, said the agency was aware of the allegations, and stated: “Sexual misconduct of any kind, including custodial sexual misconduct, is not tolerated by this department.”

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