Former Alabama prison inmates describe abuse

photo Razor wire and towers surrounds the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, in Wetumpka, Ala., 2013 file photo.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - 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.

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.