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By Christopher Zoukis

When you put any human being in a box and put others in charge, you create an environment that is ripe for abuse without strict oversight.  Unfortunately, because prisons are supposed to be a punishment for law breakers (and those confined therein have left victims in their wake), there is often very little sympathy for inmates, and that means 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 for them 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 occurrence 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 employees of the prison, often for basic necessities such as toilet paper.  The New York Times reports that this type of abuse has not only been active for over 18 years, but that prison officials knew of the abuse early on and did nothing to put a stop to 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 claimed 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 has been a major contributing factor in the sexual abuse of the women at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.  According to prison officials, there are three total 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 it is deplorable.  If the majority of American citizens can manage to not rape their co-workers when there are no security cameras present, then we should expect the same of 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’s 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 of it potentially hampering their future political ambitions, not to mention their re-election campaigns and their 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 deterrent to crime, and some of those in prison have engaged in truly 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 at reform (such as prison education programming.  In the latter scenario, they seemingly have no choice but to return to a criminal lifestyle upon their 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 in prisons like the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women that drastic reforms are required.  But more than institutional reform, lawmakers, prison officials, law enforcement, and the American public need to understand why it is so important to treat prisoners in a humane manner: they will one day be released from prison and become our neighbors once 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.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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