(CN) – The Alabama Department of Corrections on Thursday agreed to sweeping reforms at its Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women to settle a federal lawsuit claiming widespread sexual victimization of inmates at the facility by male corrections officers.
In January 2014, the U.S. Justice Department issued a findings letter that concluded woman prisoners at the facility in Wetumpka, Alabama were subjected to a pattern and practice of sexual abuse in violation the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The findings identified several systemic failures that led to the pattern of abuse, including ineffective reporting and investigations and no grievance policy. Tutwiler also failed to hold culpable staff accountable for abuses, the Justice Department said.
On Thursday the agency filed a lawsuit in the Montgomery, Alabama Federal Court based on those findings, and then immediately filed a joint motion with the state, dismissing the suit while also seeking to retain jurisdiction to enforce the settlement agreement.
“Prisoners are entitled to be safe from sexual predation by staff, and to live in an environment free from sexual assault, sexual harassment and the constant fear of these abuses,” said the head of the Civil Rights Division, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta in a written statement.
“Our agreement uses gender-responsive and trauma-informed principles designed to address and eliminate the culture of abuse that Tutwiler’s women prisoners have suffered from and endured for years,” Gupta said.
The Justice Department said Alabama has already begun implementing important reforms to better protect woman prisoners, including the creation of an agency-level position of Deputy Commissioner of Women’s Services.
Wendy Williams, a medical doctor, has been appointed to the position, and is charged with implementing gender-responsive practices at Tutwiler and with leading what the Justice Department described as” long overdue culture change.”
The agreement requires Tutwiler to protect women from sexual abuse and sexual harassment by ensuring sufficient staff to safely operate Tutwiler and supervise prisoners, supplemented by a state-of-the-art camera system. The agreement also provides safeguards to prevent staff from unnecessarily viewing prisoners who are naked or performing bodily functions.
Tutwiler must ensure that each prisoner knows of her right to be free from sexual abuse and harassment, and that each prisoner is aware of the several internal and external methods to report abuse, including a new grievance process.
Tutwiler will protect prisoners from the threat of retaliation by monitoring the housing, programming and disciplinary status of any prisoner who reports or alleges abuse, the Justice Department said. Further, women who allege sexual abuse are entitled to unimpeded access to medical treatment and crisis intervention services, the agency said.
The agreement also has provisions directed toward staff including the requirement to thoroughly train all staff on their duties to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse at Tutwiler. Staff will also be trained on how to manage, interact and communicate appropriately with women prisoners and with their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender nonconforming prisoners.
The agreement requires that all sexual abuse and sexual harassment allegations are promptly, thoroughly and objectively investigated and appropriately referred for prosecutorial review, and that alleged victims are advised of the outcome of their allegations.
Tutwiler must also take appropriate disciplinary action against staff found to have engaged in sexual abuse or sexual harassment or to have violated Tutwiler’s sexual abuse and sexual harassment policies and procedures.
The facility is required to create a quality assurance program to track and analyze data to ensure that sexual abuse and harassment is being adequately prevented, detected and responded to.
Finally, the agreement requires an independent monitor to evaluate Tutwiler’s progress towards meaningful reform and assist Tutwiler’s compliance efforts. The agreement requires the monitor to provide compliance reports to the court every six months.
“The issues at Tutwiler are not new, but our focus over the last three years has been to address them, ensuring the facility is a safe place for both inmates and staff,” said Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley in a statement today.
“I am proud of the reforms we have made at Tutwiler, and I know we have more to do,” Bentley said.
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