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An inmate survey released last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics said Tutwiler had one of the highest rates in the nation of inmates who say they have been sexually assaulted or abused by a staff member.

The report - “Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011-12” - identified Tutwiler as one of 12 prisons - eight male and four female prisons - with the highest rates in the country of reported staff misconduct in 2011.

Colby said some inmates seek out attention from the officers. It is a felony for employees to engage in any sexual conduct with a person who is in the custody of the Department of Corrections, the Department of Youth Services or local jails.

“There’s no such thing as consensual sex in prison. When one person has that kind of power and authority over another, it’s not consensual,” Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of Alabama’s Joint Legislative Prison Committee, said.

State officials don’t dispute one point raised by the Justice Department.

The Department of Justice said Tutwiler is at “dangerously low staffing levels, including a dearth of female officers, thus placing women prisoners at serious risk of harm from other prisoners and staff.”

Staffing, Thomas agreed, is a problem as it is elsewhere in the cash-strapped prison department. The inmate-to-staff ratio in Alabama is about 11-to-1, about more than twice the national average of 5-to-1, he noted.

“Do I think that we are going to have to, at some point, spend more money on prisons or put fewer people in jail and use more diversions? We are going to have to do that,” Bentley said.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, the Montgomery-based nonprofit group which first raised the alarm about Tutwiler, said he disagrees with state officials who insist enough is being done.

“One of the challenges is that the state has just been casual about this,” Stevenson said.

Former Tutwiler inmate Stephanie Hibbett, 33, said officers would sometimes make comments about women’s bodies while they were using the bathrooms and showers. Hibbett said a guard groped her and tried to kiss her while she was cleaning a trailer used for church services. The guard was later dismissed, but Hibbett said she felt like she was regarded with suspicion when she initially made the complaint. She said she was asked to take a polygraph test and told she would be put in inmate segregation.

“It’s a constant walk of fear,” Hibbett recalled of her time at Tutwiler.

Ward said the DOJ report should be a wake-up call to state leaders.

“Are every one of these allegations true? I don’t know. But if a tenth of these allegations are true, then we’ve got a huge problem on our hands,” Ward said.