Female Prison Inmates Struggle at Alabama Prison for Women

Female Prison Inmates Struggle at Alabama Prison for Women

When you put any human being in a box and put others in charge, you create an environment ripe for abuse without strict oversight. Unfortunately, because prisons are supposed to punish lawbreakers (and those confined therein have left victims in their wake), there is often minimal sympathy for inmates, meaning that millions of inmates are placed in prisons that are matrices for abuse.

Female prison inmates are especially prone to abuse from prison guards and other prison employees because it is more difficult to defend themselves against such abuses. The United States Department of Justice is currently investigating one of the worst cases of this abuse at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama, where rapes and harassment have been common occurrences for almost two decades.

Years of Abuse in Alabama Prison for Women

It is estimated that over 33 percent of the female prisoners at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women have been forced into sexual relations with prison employees, often for basic necessities such as toilet paper. The New York Times reports that this type of abuse has been active for over 18 years and that prison officials knew of the abuse early on and did nothing to stop it. They simply turned a blind eye.

While abusive prison employees are and have been an ongoing problem at the prison, local lawmakers argue that there are three other reasons responsible for these abhorrent conditions:

  • Prison Overcrowding: Prison officials at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women claim that overcrowding is one of the issues that has contributed to the pattern of sexual abuse. Republican lawmaker Cam Ward contended that one of the major issues concerns longer sentences that seem to keep the prisons packed beyond capacity for extended periods of time. While prison overcrowding is a real problem in the United States and abroad, it is most certainly not an excuse for sexual assaults in American prisons nor for prison guards to rape female prison inmates (or male prison inmates, for that matter).
  • Lack of Funding: Ward also asserted that funding had been a significant contributing factor in the sexual abuse of the women at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. According to prison officials, there are three cameras in the entire prison, and staffing levels are at an astoundingly low 50 percent of the target level. Prison officials say that this creates plenty of places for crooked prison guards to hide when engaging in sexual assault on prisoners and no way to catch them in the act. Of course, this, too, depends on there being enough honest prison guards to uphold the law and stop prison rapes as they occur. The notion that there not being a security camera present causes guard-on-inmate rapes or contributes to them is deplorable. If most American citizens can manage not to rape their co-workers when there are no security cameras, we should expect the same from prison guards, too.
  • Political Landscape: Prison reform movements and agendas at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women have been strenuously opposed because of the local political landscape and the larger Alabama correction landscape. In rural Alabama, the tougher on crime (and less sympathetic to prisoners) a political candidate, the more likely they are to be elected. As such, even though state legislators know that there is a severe sexual abuse problem at the prison, they are hard-pressed to do anything about it because it potentially hampers their future political ambitions, not to mention their re-election campaigns and financial coffers.

The sexual abuse at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women is so pronounced that some female prison inmates are having their rapist’s babies without consequence, and it’s believed that the problem isn’t solely at the prison in question but prevalent throughout the rest of the Alabama prison and jail system, particularly where female prisoners are concerned.

The Culture of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women

Prisons are designed to be a crime deterrent; some prisoners have engaged in genuinely atrocious acts to warrant being placed there. Yet, the reality is that once incarcerated in a prison facility, inmates can either be rehabilitated and eventually released to live better, law-abiding lives or treated brutally and harshly and provided with no meaningful opportunities for reform (such as prison education programming.  In the latter scenario, they seemingly have no choice but to return to a criminal lifestyle upon release from correctional custody. Since many of the female prison inmates at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women were convicted of relatively minor offenses, this risk is not only unconstitutional — as it is for even those who have committed major criminal offenses — but also has the power to turn relatively low-level and low-risk female offenders into those much more severe and high-risk.

It’s clear that drastic reforms are required in prisons like the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. But more than institutional reform, lawmakers, prison officials, law enforcement, and the American public need to understand why it is so vital to treat prisoners humanely: they will one day be released from prison and become our neighbors again. The inverse — abusing prisoners like animals — will result in what is currently occurring at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women: prison guards are becoming rapists and sex offenders while the prisoners are being further victimized, which results in them becoming hardened and more likely to become worse criminal offenders upon release from correctional custody.