A report from the U.S. Department of Justice issued late last week said instances of sexual abuse at the hands of prison staff and others have been underreported for nearly 20 years. The report also said jail staff condoned a strip show inside the facility and would deliberately watch inmates shower and use the restroom.
Federal officials visited the prison in April and recently sent their findings to Bentley in a 36-page letter. Investigators have said prisoners there fear for their safety.
"We conclude that the state of Alabama violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution by failing to protect women prisoners at Tutwiler from harm due to sexual abuse and harassment from correctional staff," federal officials wrote in the letter.
The Eighth Amendment bans “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The DOJ said it will expand its probe to medical and mental health care for inmates as well.
"During the course of our investigation, we reviewed information suggesting that the systemic deficiencies at Tutwiler that facilitated staff sexual misconduct may also lead to excessive use of force, constitutionally inadequate conditions of confinement, constitutionally inadequate medical and mental health care, and discriminatory treatment based on national origin, sexual orientation, and gender identity," federal officials said.
Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas called the findings off-base and said officials have been working to address problems at the facility for months.
"The letter is based on a visit from last year," Thomas told the Montgomery Advertiser. "It does not give us enough credit for being productive. We are still trying to get everybody on board."
Before the federal probe began, Thomas implemented a formal action plan in January 2013 to begin addressing some of the allegations.
In a statement, he said that corrections officials have never downplayed the seriousness of allegations against jail staff at Tutwiler, but he doesn't agree that the facility is operating in a deliberately indifferent or unconstitutional manner.
"We will cooperate with the Department of Justice and continue our efforts to implement changes and recommendations with the goal of improving prison conditions and avoiding potential contested litigation," Thomas was quoted as saying in a press release.
Jennifer Ardis, a spokeswoman for Bentley, said in a statement that the governor is "supportive of Commissioner Thomas' proactive measures to address the needs and issues in our prison system."
Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, said the report would strengthen her effort to have Tutwiler closed and replaced, either with a new prison or several smaller facilities.
“The question is, where do you find the money?” said Boyd, a co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Commission on Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System. The commission has been issuing reports on overcrowding and other problems at Tutwiler for years.
Prison officials asked lawmakers last year for a budget increase to pay for the installation of video cameras at Tutwiler. The prison has few video cameras, and prison officials said cameras would help prevent abuse. Prison officials, citing the difficulty of retrofitting equipment to an aging prison, told The Anniston Star in December that construction on the camera system had not yet begun.
In budget hearings last week, Thomas asked lawmakers to increase the state’s $389 million prison budget by $42 million in fiscal 2015. The request included $5 million to hire new corrections officers, $16 million for pay raises to help retain prison guards and $4 million to replace damaged locks and doors. The day after Thomas made his request, Gov. Robert Bentley released a budget proposal that would keep the prison system level-funded at $389 million in 2015.
“You’re long past the point of money fixing this,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the chair of the Legislature’s Joint Prison Oversight Committee. State officials have said building a new prison would cost $100 million. Ward said that to "build our way out of the problem" of overcrowding would take four or five new prisons.
"You'd have to at least double their budget," he said.
Last week, Ward introduced a proposal to create a Prison Reform Task Force to suggest solutions to the overcrowding problem. The resolution passed the Senate and is headed to the House.
Boyd said the Legislature should pay more attention to the recommendations from the prison-reform panels it already has.
"We've known for a long time that something needs to be done," she said.
The owners of a 734-bed privately-owned prison in Perry County have been trying to interest lawmakers in buying or leasing it. When Star reporters toured the facility in November, the prison had only 30 inmates, most of them federal.
Ward said that even if the state had the money to buy the Perry County prison, there aren't enough employees to staff it.
Bryan Stevenson, director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, told The Montgomery Advertiser he's pleased with the federal investigation.
"We hope the findings will trigger more meaningful reforms by the Alabama Department of Corrections," Stevenson said. "When conditions are unconstitutional, there has to be a remedy."
The Associated Press and Star reporter Tim Lockette contributed to this report.