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
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
programs and transferred to a prison far from family and with far fewer
“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, a mother of two who was
serving a 20-year sentence, recalls being confined to the dorm 24 hours
“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.