MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The commissioner of Alabama's prison system said he will not tolerate sexual abuse of inmates at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka.
"I consider custodial sexual misconduct to be the most egregious abuse of power that there is," said Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas in a recent wide-ranging interview. "It's repulsive to me, it's something I am not going to tolerate, and I'm going to make sure that everybody on my staff knows that and acts accordingly."
Thomas' comments came in the wake of a report last month issued by the U.S. Department of Justice that accuses the staff of the Tutwiler Prison for Women of allowing widespread sexual abuse of inmates there.
"The long and unabated history of staff sexual abuse and harassment is facilitated by a disciplinary system that fails to substantiate the conduct of, and discipline, sexual predators," the DOJ report says of Tutwiler. The report is based on a visitation to Tutwiler made in April 2013.
[DOCUMENT: Dept. of Justice Report (.pdf)]
Thomas told me that he would never downplay the serious nature of these allegations, but points out that he had started to put in place many reforms designed to address the problems at Tutwiler in January 2103.
"We were working to change Tutwiler even before DOJ expressed an interest in coming there," he said.
The original complaints concerning Tutwiler came in May 2012 when the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery watchdog group, issued a report that claimed it had found evidence of "frequent and severe officer-on-inmate sexual violence."
Thomas said that EJI report prompted him to ask the National Institute of Corrections to send a team of national experts to review conditions at Tutwiler.
"I specifically asked them not just to come in, but also to make specific recommendations as to any and all measures that we could take to make Tutwiler safer," Thomas said. "They were able to talk to anybody; they set the agenda."
He said that after the department received the NIC report, "I universally adopted all of their recommendations" and included them in a January 2013 directive to his staff to begin implementing 58 action items. All but one of those items has been completed, he said.
He noted that this directive was issued two months before DOJ investigators were on site to do the probe that resulted in the report issued last month by the department.
Thomas acknowledges that many of the action items that he called for were still in the process of being implemented when the DOJ team was on site.
[DOCUMENTS: ADOC and DOJ Tutwiler letters (.pdf)]
When I compared the DOJ letter of January 2014 and Thomas' directives of January 2013, it was clear that Thomas was correct when he said that the department already was in the process of putting into place dozens of actions designed to address the issues found by the DOJ onsite inspection.
Those actions included training of corrections officers, supervisors, medical personnel and others; renovations of showers and other facilities to provide more privacy; recruitment of additional personnel, especially female corrections officers; and changes in policies and procedures.
But another factor that becomes obvious when comparing the DOJ report with data provided by the Corrections Department is the major disconnect between the two when it comes to the extent of the sexual abuse.
The DOJ report states that "at least 36 of the 99 total employees were identified as having had sex with prisoners -- approximately 36 percent of current staff." Thomas takes issue with those figures.
When I asked the Corrections Department for data on prosecutions and disciplinary actions involving sexual harassment at Tutwiler, the data the department provided paint a very different picture.
According to updated data provided by the department and the governor's office this week, from 2009 through 2013, Tutwiler officials referred 18 cases of sexual abuse allegations involving 24 employees to local prosecutors.
Readers should note that after the Department of Corrections conducts its own internal investigation of allegations, it turns all of the cases over to the local district attorney for review to determine if the cases should be prosecuted, even if the internal investigation finds the allegations were unfounded.
According to the DOC data:
* In 2009, there was one case involving one employee. The internal review found the case was unfounded but it was still referred for review for possible prosecution.
* In 2010, there were two cases involving seven employees. Six of the seven employees resigned and were still referred for review by prosecutors. The claims against final employee were deemed unfounded and still referred for prosecutorial review.
* In 2011 there were five cases involving seven employees. Three of the employees were terminated and were referred for review by prosecutors. Three employees resigned and were still referred to prosecutors for review. One employee "did not return to work, fled the state, and was still referred" for review by prosecutors.
* In 2012 there were five cases involving six employees. One employee resigned and was referred to prosecutors for review. The claims against the other five employees were determined to be unfounded and were still referred to prosecutors for review.
* In 2013 there were five cases involving three employees. The claims against these employees were determined to be unfounded and were referred for prosecutorial review.
But the DOJ report states: "The inappropriate sexual behavior, including sexual abuse, continues, and is grossly underreported, due to insufficient staffing and supervision, inadequate policies and procedures, a heightened fear of retaliation, and an inadequate investigative process.
This much should be clear to every Alabamian: Whether the DOJ estimate or the Department of Corrections numbers are used, sexual abuse of female inmates has been far too common at Tutwiler. And although the reforms instituted by Thomas are extensive, it remains to be seen if they will work.
I asked Thomas if he felt the DOJ would have reached different conclusions if the onsite visit had occurred several months later, giving his reforms more time to have an impact.
He said that if the visit had happened later, there would have been a lot of action items that would have been fully completed and the agency would have had more training and more renovations in place.
But, he said, "I certainly did not expect the Department of Justice to come to Alabama and pat us on the back and tell us how good a job we were doing.
He said that he was "very proud of the responsiveness of the staff at all of our women's facilities" to reform efforts and that most staff members "are hard-working Alabamians who are trying to do a job with respect, dignity and trying to provide food for their families."
"Occasionally," he said, "when we have a bad guy, we take stern action and quick action against them."
I also asked Thomas if he felt the DOJ report might increase the chances of a federal court case against Alabama or federal intervention in the operation of the state's prisons.
He said, "I think if we refused to meet with them, failed to make any progress, I think it could, but that is not the direction we're going." The DOJ report recognizes that the Corrections Department is cooperating in its investigation.
The former warden at Tutwiler was reassigned in September 2012, although Thomas told another news organization that the change was unrelated to the sexual harassment complaints.
"I sense a difference at Tutwiler," Thomas said, but added that the prison's operation is not yet where it should be. "But we are making the right steps and will continue to make the right steps."
I have long argued that Alabama's approach to prisons -- basically lock up as many people as possible, cram them into outdated facilities at twice their design capacity, and provide just enough funding for the lowest number of corrections officers per inmates in the nation -- is a formula for disaster. And not just at Tutwiler, but potentially at many of the state's prisons.
Those funding problems certainly make the management of issues at Tutwiler more difficult. But funding cannot become an excuse for the types of sexual abuse outlined in the DOJ report. Such behavior by prison personnel cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.
To his credit, Thomas did not attempt to use his department's obvious funding problems to try to explain away the inexcusable behavior of some corrections officers.
One thing is obvious -- the federal oversight is only likely to get more intense.
The DOJ report sent last month notifies the state that "if we are unable to reach a resolution regarding our concerns with regard to sexual abuse," the U.S. Attorney General may initiate a lawsuit "to correct deficiencies of the kind identified in this letter."
The report also indicates that the DOJ is expanding its investigation "to evaluate allegations regarding excessive use of force, constitutionally inadequate conditions of confinement, constitutionally inadequate medical and mental health care, and discriminatory treatment on the basis of national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender nonconformity."
In other words, this is an issue that is not likely to go away anytime soon.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at email@example.com.