Prison Rape at Tutwiler: A Disgrace!

  • Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D.
  • May 24, 2012
  • The Root

If inmates’ claims are true, the Alabama prison’s latest scandal shows that it needs a major overhaul.

Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., is in the news again. You may recall that this is the same prison where, in the mid-1980s, prisoners with HIV were segregated from the general-population inmates. Until 2007 they were not allowed to eat in the dining halls, have access to educational classes, hold jobs at the facility, attend religious services or receive friends and family during regular visitation hours.

The ACLU, AIDS Alabama, members of the state Legislature and other advocacy groups worked tirelessly for years to end the sanctions against prisoners with HIV. One of the HIV-positive prisoners, Dana Harley, wrote letters to the Alabama ACLU and then-Gov. Bob Riley detailing the mistreatment of HIV-infected prisoners at the facility and described the consequences of being outed to members of the inmate community, such as being socially ostracized or even murdered. In 2007 the Alabama Department of Corrections ended the separate-and-unequal treatment of prisoners in Tutwiler, although letters written after the desegregation of the prison detailed continued discrimination, including being banned from work-release programs.

You would think that Tutwiler Prison would have learned from past misdeeds, but it seems the reverse is true, as evidenced by new claims that women have been the victims of widespread sexual abuse by male prison guards at the notorious prison. According to CNN, the Equal Justice Initiative “uncovered evidence of frequent and severe officer-on-inmate sexual violence” (pdf) based on data collected from 50 interviews with prisoners.

Prisoners are alleging incidents of rape, which have resulted in pregnancies and unwanted births. In addition, some have been subjected to beatings, for which prison officials have failed to file criminal charges against alleged assailants. EJI also claims that more than 20 guards have been transferred or fired in the last five years for having illegal sexual contact with prisoners.

Is the 1973 sexploitation film Black Mama, White Mama part of prison-guard training at Tutwiler? First it was prison policy to discriminate against an entire population of women, and now several guards are accused of the unthinkable: raping and beating prisoners at will? Where is the humanity in this place?

While the claims have not been proved, it’s not really a stretch to think that a prison that would segregate prisoners according to their HIV status would then allow the indiscriminate sexual abuse of other prisoners. The men in power at Tutwiler seem way too comfortable with the abuse of women on multiple fronts.

This culture of rape in prison is horrible, and it must end in all jail and prison facilities, male or female. Comedians (see Saturday Night Live) and adult cartoons like The Boondocks make fun of men being “anally raped” in prison, but rape is no laughing matter. There are major physical, psychological and medical consequences from rape; survivors often suffer for the rest of their lives.

Some believe that if you go to prison, you deserve whatever treatment you get. Not all people go to jail or prison for violent crimes, and as we continue to learn, many prisoners are wrongly convicted.

Consider the case of the late Kendall Spruce, a 123-pound inmate who was raped more than 25 times during his nine-month stay at an Arkansas state prison, where he contracted HIV. Spruce was incarcerated for violating parole in 1991 after initially being convicted of writing a bad check.

At his testimony before the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in August 2005, Spruce said, “I know I had to pay the price for what I did, but I’ve paid double price. That check I wrote cost me my life.” Though Spruce may not have been innocent of his crime, it’s hard to imagine that he deserved his prison fate. Spruce died of AIDS in 2010.

Spruce is not alone, as evidenced by the testimonials of many men and women at Just Detention International, a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention. Their efforts lead me back to Tutwiler.

If Tutwiler guards are found guilty of engaging in the widespread sexual abuse of female prisoners and failing to notify authorities of accusations against male prison guards, then the prison should be closed. It is unlawful and hypocritical to incarcerate people for committing crimes and then to allow crimes to be committed against them in the prison system. In fact, that’s the opposite of justice.

Nsenga K. Burton is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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