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Tutwiler Women’s Prison Is a Hothouse of Sexual Violence

One night in June of 2008, James Sutton—not a guard but a nurse at the prison—ordered an inmate, Felicia Dixon, to go into the showers (nobody really showers at night) and asked her to sit down on a bench. According to court documents, he then stood in...
February 25, 2014, 4:02pm

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One night in June of 2008, James Sutton—not a guard but a nurse at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, in Wetumpka, Alabama—allegedly ordered an inmate, Felicia Dixon, to go into the showers (nobody really showers at night) and asked her to sit down on a bench. According to court documents, he then stood in front of her, unzipped his pants in front of her face, and demanded that she perform oral sex on him. She hesitated. He said, “You are wasting time. Just do it a [little] bit.” Dixon did nothing, and Sutton moved closer to her mouth. He goaded her, “Shit! You owe me. Now come on; open your mouth, just a little bit.” Sutton claimed that he’d let her use a telephone and brought her food from outside, so naturally Dixon should pay it back in trade. She put his penis in her mouth for the duration of about a minute, presumably all she could stand.


In many contexts Dixon, as a woman, maybe even as an exceptionally comely or vaguely manipulative woman, would have the right to ignore this pressure; every woman has a right to refuse sexual contact, no matter what the circumstances. But that entitlement to civil liberties, in many cases, is functionally revoked when you’re incarcerated. So if somebody like Sutton, in his capacity of employment with the prison, weren't even threatening physical violence, but were guilt-tripping her for all of the favors he’d done for her, Dixon, as an inmate, would feel powerless against him. As the details of her lawsuit reveal, “Plaintiff is a state prisoner, controlled by verbal command and order.” This is the way she was conditioned to behave. What else could she have done?

Reports of a hostile, sexualized atmosphere at Tutwiler prison have been well-documented since 1995. In 2007, the Bureau of Justice Statistics named Tutwiler the “women’s prison with the highest rate of sexual assaults in the nation.” A new report indicates that incidents of sexual abuse and inappropriate sexual interactions between inmates and staff have only skyrocketed since then.

There have been complaints about Julia Tutwiler penitentiary for ages. It was built in 1942 and was supposed to house a maximum of 417 prisoners; today it holds about 900. After a 2002 lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates regarding overcrowding and unsafe conditions, 300 women were transferred to a private prison in Louisiana. As of last year, when the Department of Justice held a three-day investigation in response to a report released by an Alabama nonprofit, the Equal Justice Initiative, the population was already back to 928.


The report from the Department of Justice’s investigation, the findings of which were published on January 17, 2014, is ghastly. In a perfect penitentiary world, there is supposed to be a protected channel through which inmates are permitted to report abusive activity not only by guards but also by other inmates—this is all afforded under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. The top-down corruption and malign disregard, not only for nationally accepted investigation procedures but for these women’s daily lives, was so egregious that the DOJ regularly states in its report that it believes almost every single piece of data cited is likely not representative of what really went on at all—the DOJ believes that the reality is much worse.

But the situation presented in the report is already terrifying. For instance, 36 percent of Tutwiler staff were identified by inmates as “having had sex with prisoners”—whether consensual or not, it’s illegal under state law. One officer routinely licks his lips at inmates and offers to exchange sexual favors for fresh uniforms and underwear. Officers march into the showers unannounced (a direct violation of PREA statutes) while women are bathing to perform a head count—they did this with impunity, even in the three days while the DOJ was on site. Often they linger in the showers, deliberately miscount, or have the women all turn to face them so that they are standing in full-frontal view of the officer. One officer impregnated an inmate in May of 2010. Staff speak abusively to the women, calling them “stupid bitches,” “hating-ass bitches,” “too cute to be in prison,” and “pieces of shit.” Some of the women in drug treatment are affectionately called “dope whores” by one officer. This same guy also told another inmate to “shut her cum catcher” when she tried to address him. Another officer flamboyantly made fun of an inmate who had razor burn on her thigh and encouraged other staff and prisoners to mock her too.


The DOJ unearthed that officers use sex to play favorites—they smuggle drugs, makeup, coffee, sugar, perfume, alcohol, and tampons for women who put out. It’s not just guards, either. One instructor let women use his prison-approved laptop to send emails or to work on court and tax documents and résumés in exchange for a cellphone photo shoot of the prisoners in their underwear. Officers encourage sexual relationships between the women; they arrange for special contests in which prisoners win the opportunity to spend mealtime with their girlfriends. This may sound sweet but for the fact that it, like playing favorites, leads to a competitively sexualized environment, culminating in bizarre events like at least two improvised “strip shows,” one on New Year’s Eve, when an officer happily volunteered his flashlight as a strobe.

But the problems are systemic, and multi-layered. Female convicts are often poor, come from broken homes, and, frequently, are victims of sexual abuse or assault prior to incarceration. A place like Tutwiler not only subjects women to daily abuse but presents a sexually hostile environment eerily similar, in all likelihood, to the ones they left on the outside. So much for rehabilitive justice.

Furthermore, the DOJ discovered significant discrepancies between the prison’s own incident documentation and the state PREA coordinator’s information. Apparently, myriad “incidents” were missing, and more than 113 were marked as “pending,” with no investigation or disciplinary effort mentioned. So when inmates do register complaints against staff, the paperwork often stalls, and potentially offending officers, many with multiple allegations, are not removed from duty.

And this all takes place in an overcrowded women’s prison, in which there are very few female guards. Tutwiler is chronically understaffed, and often guards there work overtime "on loan" from men’s prisons. During the day, there are 14 officers overseeing the general population. On average, one officer patrols a single dorm of more than 150 women. At night, there are ten officers left in charge of 900 inmates. The dorm and open shower layout provide guards with unobstructed views of everything these women do, including taking a shit. They’re totally vulnerable, not only to the guards but each other. They’re zoo animals on display.

These conditions, along with numerous other complaints, have revealed so many Eighth Amendment violations that the DOJ isn’t even done with Tutwiler. It's decided to continue its investigation, concerned now not only with the sexual abuse but with the dysfunction of the facility as a whole.

Sure, prisons are notoriously horrible, especially throughout the South. But Julia Tutwiler seems to have a uniquely savage reputation. In one case cited in the report, in September 2009, Brittney Cooper was picked up on a parole violation and held in nearby Bullock County, Alabama, for several days. Cooper had learned from an earlier medical examination that she was with child. The day she arrived at the Bullock County Jail, she noticed some irregular bleeding, and when she notified the officer on duty, he admonished her by saying that if she complained any more about needing medical help, the sheriff would surely ship her off to Tutwiler. Which means, that, yes, Tutwiler itself was used as a threat to keep a woman quiet while she sat in her cell and suffered the miscarriage of a child that experts later determined could have been saved.