Alabama must close Tutwiler now. It’s time to end the abuse.

Pit of vipers at Alabama's Tutwiler, prison for women
Pit of vipers at Alabama’s Tutwiler, prison for women

By Editorial Board link here
on February 02, 2016 at 8:30 AM, updated February 02, 2016 at 2:11 PM

We know the legislature has a lot to do as it reconvenes today for the governor’s state of the state address and the legislative session to follow. It has to address teacher salaries. It has to consider whether Alabama will join most American states in a lottery. It has to consider raising the gas tax, so tempting with prices at the pump lower than they’ve been in years. We want to remind Governor Robert Bentley and the other lawmakers of another priority: get rid of Tutwiler prison, and get on with the prison reforms passed last year and then hung up due to lack of funding.

More than two years ago we first called for the closing of Tutwiler, Alabama’s infamous prison for women. On Jan. 14, 2014, we addressed ongoing reports of rampant sex abuse — ongoing for about 20 years — overcrowding and a culture of reprisals against those who tried to resist or report abuse. That editorial call was part of a series of in-depth reports that we published on prison problems in our state. We’re proud that our journalism, along with townhall consultations and other community engagement efforts for which we won a national award, led to real change in our state. But more is needed.

“There is no more room for waffling on this issue,” we said in that editorial. “The women at Tutwiler are convicted criminals, but they’re also daughters and sisters and mothers and deserve to at least be treated within the bounds of the law by law-enforcement officials. This is a shameful stain on Alabama. Our state cannot claim to be a civilized place unless decisive action is taken. Tutwiler prison, this hellhole of abuse a half-hour from the capital in Montgomery, must be shut down… “Close Tutwiler. Now.”

Bentley and other legislators — particularly Senator Cam Ward, who led the charge when it was a lonely and unrewarding thing for an Alabama politician — can be proud that last year they indeed acted on prison reform, after years of denials that Alabama even had prison problems. Last May the governor signed a historic criminal justice bill that the legislature sent him. No doubt Bentley was proud when in July he got to address Congress in Washington about this progress, putting Alabama out there as a model of reform. After all, the bill had been lauded by no less than Newt Gingrich, hardly the kind of bleeding heart lefty critics of Alabama prisons had been described as for years.

But still today, most of the reforms in that bill are stalled while Bentley and the legislature wanted the credit for the reform bill, they didn’t want the bill for the reform. The budget they passed did not allow for funding of the changes they themselves called for.

And still today, nearly 1,000 prisoners languish at Tutwiler, nearly 75 percent above its actual capacity, most of them convicted of non-violent crimes that don’t merit sentences in such a place. That hellhole is past its useful life. It carries with it too much baggage, and too many problems. Yes, we need a place to house violent female offenders, but we believe we have better options.

Here is our call to Bentley and legislators as they convene today:

Alabama must get on with funding the prison reforms it has finally accepted as necessary, and for which it has accepted national laudations.

And Alabama must close Tutwiler. Now.

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