“I view custodial sexual misconduct as the most despicable, ultimate abuse of power,” Thomas said in a Statehouse hearing by the Joint Legislative Prison Committee.
Thomas spoke to the committee about allegations of sexual misconduct at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, the state’s only maximum-security prison for women. Last May, the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based group, released a report alleging pregnancies at the prison due to coercion by corrections staff.
After the report was released, Thomas said, the state Department of Corrections invited the National Institute of Corrections, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, to inspect the prison.
That visit revealed that anonymous hotlines set up to report prisoner rape sometimes didn’t work, Thomas told lawmakers. Prison employees had little knowledge of their responsibilities under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, the NIC found, and inmates had little privacy from male guards while showering.
Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, told Thomas he wanted to know just how many inmates had become pregnant in the prison. Thomas said two former inmates had become pregnant by men who were, at the time, Tutwiler employees. One of the women, he said, was on parole at the time she became pregnant but was sent back to prison later.
“This is criminal activity,” said Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla. “These folks, if they knew this was going on, and they let it happen, they need to be locked up.”
Farley asked whether criminal charges were being sought against the fathers in the inmate pregnancies. Thomas said that criminal investigations were under way.
The prison commissioner said he enacted reforms — including regular checks to make sure the prison rape hotline works — as soon as the Justice Department visit was over.
“The very next day we began to implement changes,” he said. “I didn’t want to sit on my hands waiting for a report.”
One former inmate said she never saw that effort. Amanda Moore, who said she was in Tutwiler on a manslaughter charge until November 2012, said phones at the facility often didn’t work, even after the Justice Department review. She said female staffers would verbally abuse lesbian inmates and male guards would watch inmates shower.
“It’s really humiliating,” she said.
Lawmakers — at least those on the prisons committee — are feeling an increasing urgency to act on the entire prison system’s problems. The system is overcrowded, operating at about 190 percent of its ideal capacity, according to Department of Corrections numbers.
Two years ago, a lawsuit in California led to a federal court order demanding that state ease prison overcrowding. State officials have worried openly that Alabama is ripe for a similar suit.
“If we really care about the 10th Amendment, we would do what we need to do” to avoid a lawsuit and federal intervention, said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.
Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, said the problem is the fault of legislators, who have long run for office on a “throw away the key” approach to crime.
“We need to be the leaders, instead of being led,” she said.
Still, it’s not clear that the rest of the Legislature has the political will to increase the prison system’s annual budget, which is about $365 million. Last year, voters approved an amendment that allowed the state to take $437 million out of a state trust fund to patch a hole in the state budget. The amendment was worded as a measure to fund the prison system, but much of the money went to the state’s growing obligation to fund Medicaid.
Thomas did not directly answer questions about how much money he would request from the Legislature for 2014, but he did note that the request would include more than $3 million in new safety features, including security cameras at Tutwiler.
Rogers, the Birmingham representative, said overcrowding would eventually lead to riots in prisons. He asked how many riots had occurred since Thomas had been prison commissioner.
Thomas said there had been “disturbances” at Holman Prison and St. Clair Correctional Facility in the past two years.
Figures called for a review of all the state’s prisons, similar to the one done at Tutwiler. Thomas said he didn’t think either the state or the National Institute of Corrections had the money to do that.
Farley, the McCalla representative, compared Thomas to the captain of a sinking ship.
“The governor did us a favor by appointing you… but he didn’t do you a favor,” Farley told Thomas. “He handed you the captain’s hat on the Titanic.”
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.