Installment 1: Tutwiler Prison for Women

Warning: viewer discretion advised, the content discussed in this post is of a sensitive nature.

I want to try something a little different for my next few posts, so, without further-ado welcome to my first mini-series. The next few posts will all focus on separate issues but will be linked by a common theme – infamous prisons. I want to explore the human rights abuses that occur behind bars, how they are reported and how they are resolved. This is a topic that has come into the public eye in recent days in the UK, as the death of a newborn baby at HMP Bronzefield appeared in the headlines.  At the moment I have three prisons in mind, the American Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the focus of this post, the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. 

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” – therefore, even though prisoners are of course subject to a number of human rights limitations, they are protected from undue harm under the Eighth Amendment. 

The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women is located in Alabama, USA and has a history of “unabated” abuse that is extensive and difficult to comprehend. Conducting my research for this post I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. For over two decades, there has been a toxic environment within the prison that has permitted frequent staff on prisoner sexual abuse and harassment. An investigation conducted by the Department of Justice in 2014 found that prisoners had been subjected to “abusive sexual contact…strip shows…unprofessional sexualised language and harassment”, whilst staff had “raped, sodomized, fondled and exposed themselves to prisoners”. 

Furthermore, some prisoners disclosed how they were compelled to submit to unlawful sexual advances in order to obtain necessities such as feminine hygiene products or toilet roll. As a result of the extensive abuse, the women at Tutwiler universally feared for their safety. The harm caused by this behaviour is further escalated by the revelation that approximately 70% of the women in Tutwiler have been victims of abuse prior to their time in prison. 

Looking at one specific case, the DOJ found that during May 2010 a prison worker they identify as Officer E, raped a prisoner. In 2011 that prisoner gave birth to her baby, and paternity tests confirmed that Officer E was the father. As punishment, he served only 180 days in prison. 

In addition, the report adds that at least 36 of 99 employees had been identified as having sex with the prisoners; this figure doubles when you include employees identified as engaging in sexual abuse and harassment of prisoners.

In regards to prisoners reporting their experiences, whilst so much came to light during the investigation, it is very plausible that the figures are still underrepresenting the scale of abuse, as prison staff often discourage women from reporting staff misconduct, threatening retaliation such as segregation or increased abuse from other staff members. 

What blows my mind is that the Department of Justice was aware of this abuse for at least 18 years before this report was published, that the Alabama Department of Corrections was aware of this abuse for at least 18 years, that the leadership team at the Tutwiler were well aware of this abuse for the last 18 years, and yet not one of these organisations took any informed action to protect the basic rights of these women. 

Frankly, I don’t care what crimes these women committed to find themselves in jail, no human being should ever be subject to sexual abuse of any kind, or the toxicity that comes with it. They should have been protected by a multi-layer system of governance but they were failed at every single level. 

Things do appear to have improved since the 2014 report was released; the Department of Justice now visits Tutwiler every six months, more than 300 security cameras have been installed to support victim claims, and the staff are now 65% female. Whilst these are undoubtedly significant improvements I can’t help but feel as though it’s all a little too late, especially for the vast number of women who were silently abused for the decades before the changes. What frustrates me further, is the lack of public knowledge or outrage over this scandal, it is the duty of journalists to inform the people when horrendous miscarriages of justice are carried out, it’s their job to hold the people responsible to account, and put simply they failed. They failed the American people, they failed the victims of Tutwiler and subsequently they failed democracy.

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