DOJ Reponds to Sexual Harassment and Sexual Abuse
The Department of Justice today filed a complaint and settlement agreement in the district court of the Middle District of Alabama to protect prisoners at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama, from sexual victimization by correctional officers. The agreement filed is designed to resolve the Justice Department’s findings of sexual abuse and sexual harassment at Tutwiler.
In January 2014, the Justice Department issued a findings letter concluding that Tutwiler subjects its women prisoners to a pattern and practice of sexual abuse in violation the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The findings identified several systemic failures that led to the pattern of abuse, including ineffective reporting and investigations and no grievance policy. Tutwiler also failed to hold culpable staff accountable for abuses.
“Prisoners are entitled to be safe from sexual predation by staff, and to live in an environment free from sexual assault, sexual harassment and the constant fear of these abuses,” said the head of the Civil Rights Division, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta. “Our agreement uses gender-responsive and trauma-informed principles designed to address and eliminate the culture of abuse that Tutwiler’s women prisoners have suffered from and endured for years.”
Alabama has already begun to put in place important reforms to address the department’s findings including the Governor’s creation of an agency-level position of Deputy Commissioner of Women’s Services. Wendy Williams, Ed.D., has been appointed to the position, and is charged with implementing gender-responsive practices at Tutwiler and with leading long overdue culture change. The department looks forward to continuing to work with the Warden, the Commissioner and the dedicated Tutwiler staff who will be part of the solution going forward
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Move Avoids Lengthy Legal Action
Alabama’s willingness to engage in this cooperative resolution also eliminates the expense of a protracted lawsuit and offers women immediate protections. “We very much appreciate the state’s cooperation and willingness to work to bring about meaningful and sustainable change on these important issues,” said U.S. Attorney George L. Beck Jr. of the Middle District of Alabama.
The agreement comprehensively addresses the causes of the abuses uncovered by the department’s investigation. It draws upon gender-responsive, trauma-informed principles to build on the Prison Rape Elimination Act National Standards, which are designed to prevent, detect and respond to custodial sexual abuse and sexual harassment throughout our nation’s prisons and jails. The agreement tailors the more generalized national standards to target the specific problems revealed at Tutwiler and to meaningfully address the harm to Tutwiler’s women prisoners.
The agreement requires Tutwiler to protect women from sexual abuse and sexual harassment by ensuring sufficient staff to safely operate Tutwiler and supervise prisoners, supplemented by a state-of-the-art camera system. The agreement also provides safeguards to prevent staff from unnecessarily viewing prisoners who are naked or performing bodily functions.
Tutwiler must ensure that each prisoner knows of her right to be free from sexual abuse and harassment, and that each prisoner is aware of the several internal and external methods to report abuse, including a new grievance process. Tutwiler will protect prisoners from the threat of retaliation by monitoring the housing, programming and disciplinary status of any prisoner who reports or alleges abuse. Further, women who allege sexual abuse are entitled to unimpeded access to medical treatment and crisis intervention services.
Thorough Training Prescribed
The agreement also has provisions directed toward staff including the requirement to thoroughly train all staff on their duties to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse at Tutwiler. Staff will also be trained on how to manage, interact and communicate appropriately with women prisoners and with their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender nonconforming prisoners.
The agreement requires that all sexual abuse and sexual harassment allegations are promptly, thoroughly and objectively investigated and appropriately referred for prosecutorial review, and that alleged victims are advised of the outcome of their allegations. Tutwiler must also take appropriate disciplinary action against staff found to have engaged in sexual abuse or sexual harassment or to have violated Tutwiler’s sexual abuse and sexual harassment policies and procedures.
Tutwiler will put in place a quality assurance program to track and analyze data to ensure that sexual abuse and harassment is being adequately prevented, detected and responded to. Significantly, an independent monitor will evaluate Tutwiler’s progress towards meaningful reform and assist Tutwiler’s compliance efforts. The agreement requires the monitor to provide compliance reports to the court every six months.
Tutwiler’s prisoners have already seen some changes implemented following the department’s investigation. One current prisoner recently wrote to the Civil Rights Division to say, “[W]e thank [DOJ] for all you are doing and are looking forward to all the miraculous things to come.”
The investigation was conducted by the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section, with assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Middle District of Alabama. Additional information about the Civil Rights Division is available on its website at www.justice.gov/crt.
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