MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Department of Corrections officials and Gov. Robert Bentley's office say they had been working to improve conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison before a federal investigation found evidence of inmates being sexually abused by staff and fellow prisoners.
A report from the U.S. Department of Justice 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 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 said in the statement.
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."
Director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, told the newspaper 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."