“No Means No…Unless You’re an Inmate”

thumb.phpAs of February 1, 2014, there are 317,456,363 people residing in the United States, according to the latest US Census. Of that 317,456,363, about 2.3 million are residents of the US prison population. 205,000 of the 2.3 million are women prisoners. Recently, sexual assault of female inmates has been in the news nationally and locally. On a national scale, there’s Alabama’s Tutwiler Prison and on a local scale, there’s the case of Hawaii female inmates being abused at a Kentucky Prison. Is this a new problem? No, it’s not. Female inmates have been sexually assaulted with little to no punishment or deterrence for the offender. These crimes go largely ignored and the protections afforded to these prisoners are so bad that our prison system has been referred to as a “violation of human rights”. Albeit, these prisoners are doing time for crimes ranging from minor drug violations to murder, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be afforded any protections from unwanted sexual advances.  It’s disgusting how the staff regularly assaults the inmates.

Prisons are usually built away from the general population and that could be for various reasons. However, what’s common about the prison system is that it’s not a very transparent facility and most people aren’t aware of what’s going on inside the prisons. It’s an “out of sight, out of mind” type of phenomena. What’s bad about this is that we have become desensitized to the needs of the people inside the prison.   It seems sexual assaults committed outside of the prison systems are given more attention from the public versus the sexual assaults within the prison systems. The imbalance of attention could be a result of the public’s willed or unintentional ignorance. Regardless, something needs to be done.

Tutwiler, an all-women’s prison in Wetumpka, Alabama, has recently been investigated for alleged mistreatment of its prisoners. Tutwiler has been labeled the worst prison in America for sexual abuse.   Even though there are statutes in place barring prisoner-staff sexual relations and the punishment is a felony charge, it is painfully obvious that these statutes have not been upheld.

Here’s a little history on Tutwiler Prison. Tutwiler Prison was built in 1942 and named after Julia Tutwiler. Julia Tutwiler was called the “Angel of Stockades” for her work in improving prison conditions in Alabama. She fought for reforms such as: separating male and female inmates, bettering sanitation in prisons, and increasing educational and religious opportunities for prisoners. She passed away on March 24, 1916, but I’m pretty sure she’s rolling in her grave watching what’s going on in today’s prison system. Today, Tutwiler houses 900 plus female inmates. Tutwiler is terribly understaffed and has only three working security cameras in the entire prison. The environment of this run-down and understaffed prison has created an environment where sexual assaults can run rampant.

Anthony Alvin Baker is one case of a probation officer turned sexual predator. He was charged with two counts of first-degree rape, eight counts of custodial sexual misconduct, nineteen counts of harassment, and thirteen incidents of indecent exposure. He pled guilty only to two counts of rape and the other forty charges were dropped. What did Mr. Baker receive for his laundry list of crimes? Only a mere eight years in jail, which Mr. Baker called “excessive”. But would you find this excessive? Personally, I think this man got off with a slap on the wrist for his laundry list of charges.

Tutwiler corrections officers are known to have beaten, raped, and harassed the female prisoners. More than one-third of these officers has confessed to having some type of sexual relations with these prisoners and it’s debatable if the sex was consensual or coerced. Some of the female inmates have reported they have sex with the officers for better treatment or to obtain necessities like toilet paper or tampons, which are difficult to get legitimately. Male guards have been reported to have watched the inmates shower and even helped the prisoners organize a strip show. The federal government has declared the situation at Tutwiler “unconstitutional”. Recently, in 2009, six officers out of thirty were convicted of sexual crimes at this facility. Female inmates have reported widespread sexual abuse by the Tutwiler Prison staff since 2012, but there’s evidence the widespread abuse dates back to two decades ago.

The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization providing legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners, conducted its own investigations on the conditions at Tutwiler and released a report in May 2012. Six months after, there have been some reforms in the making to improve safety for the female inmates. Some reforms for Tutwiler are: more camera systems, doors for the showers, a hotline for female inmates to report sexual harassment or abuse, an inmate council for better communication between inmates and staff, and classes/programs for mental health. Other reforms include the hiring of more female corrections officers and asking for more money from the Legislature. Whether or not these reforms will work is not for sure, but I think it’s a step in the right direction in improving safety for the inmates at Tutwiler. Hopefully, these can be instituted at other prisons.

On the other side of the fence, there are prisoners who are against the federal government’s intervention. For some female inmates, sex is their currency. They use sex to get what they need and more. “Sex is an important commodity here (in the prisons)”, says Ms. Colby, who was recently released for a murder conviction in 2012. In addition, there’s the argument of, “what if the sex is consensual?” Just as sexual assault is difficult to prove in criminal courts for the general women population, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to prove the rape of an inmate who is already considered a second-class citizen. Some people have the thought that the integrity of these inmates can’t be trusted; hence, the “rape” is downplayed. There’s the thought of “well, they deserve it” but that kind of thinking is wrong. Also, as we all know, our government is tight on funds right now. This year is an election year in Alabama and improving prisons are not exactly at the top of a politician’s list. Politicians are more focused on money for education or public services, not improving living conditions for criminals.

The rate of sex assaults reported and unreported that are ignored in prisons is deplorable. I believe the prisoner’s sentence is their time spent in jail and sexual assaults and harassment is not a part of our criminal justice procedure. Sexual assault is not a proper process of punishment. There needs to be a nationwide reform for improving the safety of inmates and not just at Tutwiler. Inmates are still human and they deserve their basic human rights, at least. While these inmates may have violated our laws, it does not mean they are ghosts to the protection of our laws.

 

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