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Alabama, feds reach agreement over alleged prison abuse

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama women’s prison will be overhauled after the U.S. Justice Department said officers there coerced inmates into sex, watched them in showers and bathrooms and organized a New Year’s Eve strip show.

The Department of Justice on Thursday filed a complaint in federal court summarizing alleged abuses at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, along with an accompanying settlement agreement outlining the steps the state has agreed to take to eliminate the abuses.

Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s top civil rights lawyer, said the agreement could serve as a model for other prisons.

“The settlement ultimately aims for a complete transformation, a kind of cultural change inside the institution,” Gupta said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Built in 1942 in the sleepy town of Wetumpka and named for a reformer who crusaded for better conditions behind bars, Alabama’s lone prison for women was thrust into an unfavorable spotlight last year when the Department of Justice accused Alabama of violating inmates’ constitutional rights to be protected from harm.

“Defendants have allowed a sexualized environment to exist at Tutwiler, such that sexual abuse and sexual harassment are constant, and prisoners must sometimes submit to unlawful sexual advances from staff in order to obtain necessities or to avoid punishment,” the Justice Department wrote in the complaint.

The settlement came after months of negotiations between DOJ and Alabama over changes at the prison. Those improvements include requirements that sexual abuse and harassment allegations are properly and thoroughly reported, and a rigorous tracking system for prison staff. State officials also agreed to install monitoring cameras and increase privacy in bathrooms. The state has also agreed to hire a full-time compliance manager for the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

“It’s a good day not just for Tutwiler. It’s a good day for the Department of Corrections and the state, and I think it speaks well for where we are going in the future,” Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said.

Dunn said that many of the changes outlined in the settlement are already in place, including the camera system, staff training and bathroom privacy features. The staff at Tutwiler is now 65 percent female, he said; previously only 35 percent of the staff were female.

“The Alabama Department of Corrections was really a full partner in drafting the agreement,” Gupta said, adding, “It’s hard for anyone to take a look at our findings and not be objectively disturbed by what we found.”

The Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative first raised the alarm about Tutwiler after investigating an inmate’s complaint in 2011 that she was assaulted.

“It was a horror house,” EJI executive director Bryan Stevenson said. “Women were not safe. They were being threatened and menaced, and when they were assaulted and raped, there was no safe way for them to complain about these problems.”

Stevenson said conditions have improved, but he was concerned about how long it has taken. He also said that problems of crowding and assaults persist at other state prisons. Stevenson said he was also concerned that officers in the incidents did not face criminal charges.

“Things have improved but there is still a lot more work that has to be done there,” he said.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said the state has tried to address the concerns raised by the Justice Department.

State Sen. Cam Ward, who chairs a state task force on prison reform, said that with the settlement, “Hopefully, we are closing an ugly chapter in our state’s correctional history, but I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination that it is something to be happy about. It should be a wake-up call for all of us that we’ve got to do a better job of managing our corrections system.”

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Associated Press Writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.

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