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OPINION: Dept. of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas addresses Tutwiler Prison for Women

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The following is an opinion-editorial from Kim Thomas, Commissioner of the State of Alabama Department of Corrections:

January 23, 2014

Tutwiler Prison for Women: What you haven't heard...

The taxpayers of Alabama and, perhaps more importantly, the family members of the women incarcerated at Tutwiler Prison, deserve the facts about Tutwiler: The January 17, 2014, report from the Department of Justice does not accurately describe Tutwiler prison as it is today.

The Department of Justice is absolutely right that Tutwiler has had serious issues that need to be addressed. That is exactly why Tutwiler's new warden, Bobby Barrett, and the entire staff have implemented significant structural reforms over the past year. In fact, if DOJ had taken the time to learn about the comprehensive reforms underway at Tutwiler, it would not have been able to conclude that the prison is being operated in a deliberately indifferent or unconstitutional manner.

I studied corrections in college, and I have spent more than 30 years as a corrections officer, correctional sergeant, classification officer and department lawyer and now commissioner with this department. I consider custodial sexual misconduct to be the single most egregious abuse of the authority entrusted to us as a public servant, and I will not stand for it on my watch.

In May 2012, my office was made aware of a complaint by the Equal Justice Initiative outlining concerns about inappropriate staff-inmate relations at Tutwiler. The issues raised by EJI are not unique to prisons in Alabama, but we will not tolerate such behavior here. In June 2012, I requested that the National Institute of Corrections, an agency within the Department of Justice, send a team of experts to Tutwiler and make recommendations to me on steps that could be taken to prevent staff misconduct with female offenders and create a safer, healthier environment for inmates and staff. We began immediately and universally to implement the changes recommended by the institute and developed an action plan to address the challenges and opportunities identified.

In January 2013, before the DOJ ever expressed an interest in investigating Tutwiler, I directed that an action plan be created detailing what we would do to change Tutwiler and make it safe for the women residing there. The full action plan may be viewed here: www.doc.alabama.gov. The plan contained 58 specific directives. To date, 57 of those directives have been completed.

Areas addressed covered a wide range of topics: leadership and philosophy, facility changes, management and operations, staffing and training, culture, offender management, and classification. The three most important action items involved extensive staff training related to the Prison Rape Elimination Act and gender responsiveness, a plan to equip Tutwiler with more than 300 security and monitoring cameras, and training for investigators in an effort to enhance the prosecution of wrongdoers. District attorneys near prisons throughout the state were invited to participate in this training.

This action plan and other progressive initiatives will serve as the cornerstone of gender-responsive strategies at Tutwiler for years to come. We are working tirelessly to make these changes second nature and part of the fabric of day-to-day operations at Tutwiler. I am confident that we have assembled the right team to accomplish this mission.

Bottom line, the department had been working to change Tutwiler before the DOJ first expressed an interest last February, before they made their on-site inspection last April, and long before the agency issued its report last week. We have been proactive from the beginning and have never downplayed the serious nature of these allegations.

Interestingly, when DOJ officials visited Tutwiler last April, they were allowed three days of confidential inmate interviews. We asked to be notified of any current inappropriate staff-inmate relationships discovered. We were informed of none.

We have taken significant steps in the last year to improve the safety and living conditions of the women housed at Tutwiler. Those changes were not reflected in the DOJ report issued last week.

I pledge to you that the Alabama Department of Corrections will continue to transform Tutwiler, making it a safe place to live for Alabama's incarcerated daughters, sisters, mothers and wives.

Kim T. Thomas

Commissioner
State of Alabama Department of Corrections

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