Tutwiler conditions highlight problem of prison overpopulation
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Apr 27, 2013 | 5968 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — Long before there were allegations of sexual abuse and a Department of Justice investigation, Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, was keeping an eye on Alabama's only maximum security prison for women.

But this year, for the first time in years, Boyd isn't calling for Tutwiler Prison for Women to be closed. At least, not immediately.

"It's still a priority for us, but it's not going to be done soon," Boyd said. "There's no money to do it."

Boyd is a co-chair of the state's Commission on Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System, a panel created by the Legislature in 2006 to examine the problems of women in Alabama's prisons. Since at least 2008, the panel has been calling for the closure of Tutwiler, the 69-year-old prison in Wetumpka that houses roughly twice as many women as it was built for.

This year, though, the commission is asking for smaller, less expensive changes. The commission's annual report, released last week, calls for a series of changes to the physical structure of the prison, and its management culture, specifically to prevent rape.

The change appears to reflect a new political reality in Montgomery. On the one hand, there's a growing consensus that something has to be done soon about the state's prison system, which was built for about 13,000 inmates and houses nearly 26,000.

On the other hand, lawmakers say, there's little money on hand to fix the problem.

Symptomatic

Tutwiler has always been a place where the special needs of female prisoners bump up against the problems that affect the entire prison system.

Boyd and the commission have long argued that women in the prison system have an entirely different set of needs than incarcerated men. Among other things, commission reports note, women are less likely than men to commit serious crimes, but more likely to get prison time for non-violent crimes. According to Department of Corrections numbers, first-degree robbery is the offense that lands the most men in a state prison; for women, drug possession tops the list. While fewer than 1-in-5 female inmates has committed a violent crime, virtually all of them will spend some time at Tutwiler, the state's receiving unit for female inmates.

But in some ways, Tutwiler is a lot like Alabama's men's prisons — most of which were built decades ago for much smaller prison population.

"Tutwiler is symptomatic of what a problem we have," said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, co-chair of the Legislature's Joint Prison Oversight Committee. "We have a terribly underfunded, overcrowded system."

Boyd and the commission have long maintained that the prison is in poor repair, requiring as much as $37 million in renovations. They've argued that the state would save money in the long term by closing the prison and setting up a new network consisting of a smaller prison and an expanded group of work-release and other lower-security facilities.

Lawsuit threat

The commission's warnings on Tutwiler have been getting more attention in the past year, after the Montgomery-based nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative released a report alleging members of the prison staff had raped and sexually harassed women at the prison. That report, which EJI said was based on interviews with inmates, spurred state prison officials to invite federal reviewers into the prison. In January, Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas announced a series of administrative changes designed to fight abuse at the prison. In a statement this month, Thomas announced that the U.S. Department of Justice began an official investigation into the the prison in March.

Attempts to reach Thomas for comment last week were unsuccessful. Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett emailed The Star a statement from Thomas noting that the department would not "express further public viewpoints" on the sexual abuse claims due to the investigation.

The EJI report focused lawmakers' attention on Tutwiler. In a year when most agencies got no increase in state funding, the Joint Prison Oversight Committee asked Gov. Robert Bentley to add $20 million to his budget requests for the Department of Corrections — much of it to pay for cameras to monitor Tutwiler staff and renovations to give inmates more privacy.

Bryan Stevenson, director of EJI, said it's going to take more than cameras to solve Tutwiler's problems.

"The system is underfunded, but some of the reforms that are needed are not monetary in nature," Stevenson said. "If a prison catches fire, you can't just say, well, the Legislature didn't provide money for fire prevention."

The Commission on Women in the Criminal Justice system included some of Stevenson's suggestions in its 2013 report, including a recommendation that the prison set up an independent reviewer with the authority to make unannounced visits as well. Still, Boyd said, the cameras and other infrastructure changes are needed now to keep sexual assaults from happening.

"We must find the money for these cameras," she said.

For lawmakers, there's an immediate reason to make changes at the prison. Operating at 190 percent of its capacity, Alabama's prison system is in much the same place as California's system was before Plata v. Schwarzenegger, a lawsuit that led to a court order that forced that state to release thousands of inmates.

Some legislators have made it clear that they hope the proposed short-term changes at Tutwiler will help avoid such a suit.

"The California case hinged on whether the California Legislature showed a political will to deal with the problem," Ward said.

Small steps

So far, the Alabama Legislature has shown some will to deal with the problem — but not as much will as the governor or prison officials wanted. The Senate cut about $3 million from the $20 million when it passed the budget, and the House trimmed another million.

The cuts were partly due to debate about where the money came from — Bentley's proposed prison system increases were to come from tax revenues that historically went to children's programs.

But there's a bigger problem, Boyd and Ward both say. Alabama's General Fund budget comes from revenue sources that don't grow much. And the prison population continues to climb. So does the population of people on Medicaid, which is also paid for out of the General Fund.

"Medicaid and prisons take up 65 percent of the budget," he said. "With the strain Medicaid is putting us under, there's not much we can do.”

Lawmakers have so far been allergic to taxes that could fill the General Fund hole. In 2012, two lawmakers proposed tobacco tax increases predicted to add millions to the General Fund. Legislators opted instead for an amendment to take $437 million from a state trust fund, a move voters later endorsed in a referendum.

Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, said there is another way: reduce the prison population.

"The state has too many people in prison," he said. "People are committing nonviolent property crimes that amount to $100, and we're spending $15,000 to $20,000 a year to keep them in prison."

Stevenson said most states have already taken up the issue and are actively trying to reduce prison populations, while Alabama's population continues to grow.

Reducing the prison population has long been a rallying cry for lawmakers, like Boyd, who are in the Democratic minority. But it’s increasingly becoming a concern for some members of the Republican supermajority. Ward, for instance, says that he wants to solve the overpopulation problem on conservative grounds — because a lawsuit could lead to what amounts to a federal takeover of the state’s prison system.

Boyd said that while attention to the problems of Tutwiler and the prison system came at a bad time, when money is in short supply, the commission is at least beginning to see some signs of movement on its core issues. But the movement is slow.

“This is something that has to be tackled in small steps,” she said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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