Former Ala. prison inmates describe abuse

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Like most preschoolers, the 3-year-old girl who lives in Montgomery is a whirl of energy. She sings and dances through the house and loves the cartoons “Sofia the First” and “Doc McStuffins.” She parrots back letters as her caretaker spells her name.

About once a month a relative takes her to visit at Alabama’s Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women where her mother, Monica Washington, is serving a 20-year sentence for robbery. Her father was an officer at the prison and pleaded guilty in 2011 to custodial sexual misconduct after a DNA test showed he had gotten Washington pregnant, said Charlotte Morrison, a senior attorney with the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative.

Built in 1942 in the sleepy town of Wetumpka, Alabama’s lone prison for women has a “history of unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse and harassment,” the U.S. Department of Justice wrote in a scathing report in January. DOJ accused Alabama of violating inmates’ constitutional rights to be protected from harm, alleging that corrections officers had assaulted inmates, coerced inmates into sex, inappropriately watched inmates in the showers and bathrooms and once even helped in a New Year’s Eve strip show.

“The problems at Tutwiler are so much more severe than what I have seen at other prisons,” said Brenda V. Smith, a law professor at American University and member of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.

“The way to think about Tutwiler is that it is an amalgam and very intense concentration of the problems that exist in women’s correctional institutions,” Smith said.

Marsha Colby spent four years at Tutwiler before a capital murder conviction was overturned. In that time she said she saw officers watching inmates bathe, officers being verbally abusive and once walked in on an inmate and an officer having sex in a bathroom at 3 a.m.

Colby, who was released in 2012 after pleading guilty to reduced charges said some officers lingered in the showers instead of walking through quickly to count inmates.

“This particular sergeant so-called claimed he had an eye problem. He would step on the concrete pad that your partition is bolted to. He would actually stand up on that and peer over and look at us and slowly count one … two … three,” said Colby, now 49, in an interview with The Associated Press.

State officials vehemently disagree with the federal assessment.

Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas and Gov. Robert Bentley maintain the DOJ report paints an inaccurate picture of Tutwiler in 2014.

“I thought they took past offenses over many years and put them into their report as if all of those offenses were occurring today. They did not take into account all the remedies that had been put in place or were beginning to be put in place when they actually came in to visit,” Bentley said.

The Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative first raised the concerns about Tutwiler. Thomas said the National Institute of Corrections - part of the Department of Justice - was invited to conduct a review and given full access to the prison.

In response to those findings, Thomas issued a 50-point directive a year ago. Those orders included putting doors in the showers, limiting strip searches, introducing gender training for officers and stepping up efforts to recruit female officers. He has also ended the practice of putting inmates into segregation after they made complaints against officers.

“They are not going to be swept under the rug,” Thomas said of inmate complaints.

Tutwiler’s problems have come to wide public attention in recent years amid federal scrutiny.

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