[Pnews] Time to Speak Up: Women’s Prison Resistance in Alabama

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jul 16 15:39:10 EDT 2014

  Time to Speak Up: Women’s Prison Resistance in Alabama

July 16, 2014

By Victoria Law

Both incarcerated women and the U.S. Department of Justice agree: The 
Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., is a hellish place. 
In a 36-page letter that the DOJ issued to the Alabama State Governor 
Robert Brentley in January, the agency declared, “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 investigators found that, for nearly two decades, staff members 
at Tutwiler have sexually assaulted women and compelled them into sex to 
obtain necessities, such as feminine hygiene products 
and laundry service. Women who report sexual abuse are placed in 
solitary confinement, where they are given lie detector tests and are 
frequently threatened by other staff.

But while the DOJ’s letter — and conditions in Tutwiler — made headlines 
less attention has been paid to the activism and organizing by women 
inside Alabama’s prisons. During the department’s investigation, for 
example, it received 233 letters from women currently incarcerated at 
Tutwiler detailing a host of concerns about the sexual abuse they’ve 
either personally experienced or witnessed. This figure does not include 
the letters that women have been sending to the Department of Justice 
and other government entities for years before the investigation was 
launched. When incarcerated, sending testimony letters is a potentially 
dangerous action. Women risked prison staff opening their letters and 
reading their complaints — and retaliating against them. Two hundred 
thirty-three women decided to take that risk.

These actions of testifying are far from the first time women behind 
bars in Alabama have organized to effect change. Tutwiler was built in 
1942 to hold 365 women. By 2002, Tutwiler housed more than 1,000 women. 
“Every dormitory was filled front to back with bunk beds,” described one 
woman for an essay in the anthology /Interrupted Life: Experiences of 
Incarcerated Women in the United States/. “The weather gets extremely 
hot in the summers — the heat index regularly rises over 100 degrees in 
the facility — and cold in the winters. … All the windows have been 
braced so that they open only a few inches at the top. Personal space is 
nonexistent, and security is very poor.” In recent letters, she asked 
that her name not be used for fear of retaliation for speaking out about 
prison conditions.

In 2002, women filed a lawsuit against both the state and the Alabama 
Department of Corrections 
about the overcrowding, extreme temperatures and poor medical care. They 
also attempted to contact the Department of Justice and other outside 
organizations about the rampant sexual abuse, but their complaints 
received little attention. In response to the lawsuit, in December 2002, 
a federal district court judge declared Tutwiler constitutionally unsafe 
and gave state officials 30 days to develop a plan to remedy conditions.

But Alabama’s solution did not involve sentencing reform or the 
implementation of alternatives to incarceration. Instead, it contracted 
with the private prison corporation Louisiana Correctional Services to 
relocate some of the women to a private prison in Basile, a small town 
in southwest Louisiana more than seven hours away.

In April 2003, Alabama sent 140 women to Basile. In June 2003, they sent 
another 100 women. Women were pulled out of educational and treatment 
and transferred to a prison far from family and with far fewer programs.

“Ironically, we were told that the Alabama Department of Corrections 
chose prisoners for transfer based on our good conduct at Tutwiler,” 
wrote the essay author. In a separate letter, she recalled that Basile 
offered only three programs — a GED course, a substance abuse 
program and an anger stress management program.

The move sparked even more organizing. Once in Basile, women who were 
serving long sentences formed the Longertermers/Insiders group.

“The group wanted to have a voice in the decision making,” wrote the 
essay author. “We feared that once in Louisiana, we would be ‘out of 
sight, out of mind.’ … We felt it was time to speak up, make a stand, 
and be heard.”

They worked together to help each other develop the skills to produce a 
political platform about the overuse of women’s incarceration, write 
articles for the local newspapers, write letters to legislative 
representatives, discuss legislation and talk with people outside prison 
about lobbying on their behalves.

“We … are continually striving to give input to a system that has not 
allowed us to be heard,” she stated.

Their efforts to have outside people advocate on their behalves resulted 
in the legislature establishing the Commission on Girls and Women in the 
Criminal Justice System in 2006. The commission did a two-year study and 
— finding that women’s needs and pathways to prison remained unaddressed 
in the current penal system — issued a series of recommendations 
that included expanding the use of community-based alternatives to 
incarceration and the closing and tearing down of Tutwiler.

In 2006, the women were transferred to another private prison run by 
Louisiana Correctional Services, this time in Newellton, La. In 2007, 
they were returned to Alabama. Most were returned to Tutwiler, which 
remains overcrowded and rife with staff sexual abuse.

In the meantime, women’s prison organizing continued — this time aimed 
at changing long-standing prison segregation policies that discriminated 
against women with HIV or AIDS. During the 1980s, many prison systems 
segregated people with HIV or AIDS from the rest of the prison 
population. While most states stopped the practice years ago, a handful, 
including Alabama, have continued. At Tutwiler, women with HIV or AIDS 
were confined to a separate dorm. They were only allowed to work 
cleaning jobs inside their dorm or in the dorm’s yard. They had to eat 
in their living space instead of being allowed into the dining hall with 
the general population. They were denied placement in other dorms and 
prohibited from participating in programs. Lastly, they were required to 
broadcast their status by wearing white armbands.

According to an investigation by /The Atlantic/, when Beverly Jacobs 
first arrived at Tutwiler, she applied to the religious dorm, but 
officials denied her a space because of her HIV status. She also applied 
to a support dorm for people recovering from substance abuse. Prison 
officials refused her application, again because of her status. They 
also refused her for a work-release program. In addition to being denied 
participation in programs, she faced other forms of discrimination even 
while held in a separate dorm. Her clothing was placed in a bin marked 
AIDS, washed separately and often returned dirty.

“I still have nightmares about that prison,” she told /The Atlantic/.

Jacobs’s experience was the norm. Dana Harley 
<https://www.aclu.org/hiv-aids-prisoners-rights/tutwiler-prison>, a 
mother of two who was serving a 20-year sentence, recalls being confined 
to the dorm 24 hours a day.

“I felt caged,” she said in video testimony recorded by the ACLU. “I 
wanted to do things, I wanted to be a part of things, but I couldn’t.”

When her family visited, they were not allowed to use the main visiting 
room. When Harley’s four-year-old son visited, he asked why the other 
children were allowed to play in the larger visiting room while he and 
his mother were forced to remain in the smaller room.

“There’s just no way for me to explain to a four year old,” Harley 
reflected. At the prison’s clinic, nurses made comments like, “You’re 
going to die anyway,” in response to Harley’s questions.

In 2007, Harley wrote a letter to the ACLU describing her experiences. 
The ACLU had already spent two decades making several unsuccessful 
attempts — through both litigation and negotiations—to end this policy. 
The ACLU arranged for Harley to testify at a closed hearing about the 
segregation policy. It also filed another suit and, in 2012, a judge 
ruled that the policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. That 
ruling had a ripple effect, forcing Alabama and South Carolina, the 
other hold-out state, to end their HIV/AIDS segregation policy. The 
change meant that people with HIV would be allowed to participate in 
programs such as work release for the first time since the segregation 
policy began in the early 1980s. Now, Harley is able to attend religious 
services, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and other programs, 
all of which had been previously closed to her.

“It wasn’t for me 
she stated later in an interview with /USA Today/. “It’s for the people 
behind me coming in who aren’t as comfortable [with their status].” Now, 
if women with HIV or AIDS enter the prison, none of the other women know 
their status.

While these changes are welcome to those currently behind bars, the 
drastically increasing numbers of women sent to, and remaining inside, 
prisons should also push us to challenge the policies that are locking 
up so many. In 1978, Alabama held 257 women behind bars. This included 
women in local jails as well as in state and federal prisons.

Since then, the state has seen a 930.7 percent increase in its women’s 
prison population. By the end of 2012, there were 2,649 women in Alabama 
prisons. As of April 2014, Alabama has 2,686 women under some form of 
prison custody — a figure that does not include the unknown numbers of 
trans women held in men’s jails or prisons. Just over half the state’s 
prisoners have been sentenced for drug or property crimes. Of the 15,212 
people in Alabama convicted of violent felonies, only five percent are 

Regardless of whether they are incarcerated for violent or nonviolent 
offenses, the conditions women face once inside are horrific. In 
addition to pervasive, unchecked sexual abuse, women have reported 
inadequate medical care, excessive use of force, threats of force, and 
inadequate access to clean clothes, uniforms and hygiene products.

For those of us on the outside, given what we know about conditions in 
prison, it’s important to support incarcerated women’s efforts to change 
conditions. At the same time, we need to understand that more humane 
conditions should not be the ending point. We need to also challenge 
laws and policies that lock a drastically increasing number of women 
away from their families and communities in the first place.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/ppnews_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20140716/ef87d06f/attachment.html>

More information about the PPnews mailing list