Revolution Interview with Attorney Charlotte Morrison

Rampant Sexual Abuse of Women at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama

March 10, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Revolution Interview
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In May of 2012 the non-profit organization, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, calling for a quick and thorough federal investigation into widespread sexual abuse of women prisoners by male guards at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama. An investigation by EJI, which is based in Montgomery, had found shocking crimes being carried out against women at Tutwiler, including rape, sexual harassment, the trading of sex for basic commodities and systematic repression against any prisoners who complained about this abuse. In January 2014, after its own investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a letter to Alabama’s governor, stating that conditions at Tutwiler violate the constitutional rights of prisoners. The DOJ found a whole history of sexual abuse and harassment of prisoners at Tutwiler and that the women fear for their safety, living in a “sexualized environment with repeated and open sexual behavior, including: abusive sexual contact between staff and prisoners; sexualized activity, including a strip show condoned by staff; profane and unprofessional sexualized language and harassment; and deliberate cross-gender viewing of prisoners showering, urinating, and defecating.”

Charlotte Morrison, a Senior Attorney with Equal Justice Initiative, worked on the investigation at Tutwiler and some of the legal cases of prisoners who had been sexually abused. She continues to visit the women at Tutwiler to talk to them about the conditions at the prison and advocate on their behalf. In the wake of a major article in the New York Times, exposing the situation at Tutwiler (March 2, 2014), Revolution correspondent, Li Onesto, talked to Ms. Morrison about EJI’s investigation at the prison and the ongoing situation of the women prisoners. The following are excerpts from this interview:

Li Onesto: Maybe you can start by talking about the kind of abuses that Equal Justice Initiative found in its investigation at Tutwiler Prison for Women.

Charlotte Morrison: We interviewed over 50 women during the course of our investigation and every single one of the women that we interviewed had been either sexually abused or witnessed another woman being sexually abused. And the sexual harassment was rampant. So things like calling women by their body parts, instead of by name, male officers viewing women while they defecate and urinate and shave and shower—this was a daily thing. Male officers would be present in the showers. They were present while the women changed their clothes. They were present when the women used the bathroom.

Women, in order to participate in any of kind of rehabilitative programming, to go down to the trade school, were required every single day to go through a very invasive strip search in front of male officers. They were lined up in order to do the strip search before they went to the trade school and on their way back from the trade school. For any woman, this is a terrible experience—but especially for women who have come in with histories of trauma and abuse this was unthinkable and so they weren’t able to participate. They would have to decide whether to be subjected to this kind of abuse and humiliation or not participate in the trade programming.

Women were raped. We have DNA confirmation that the officers were the fathers in those cases. We have women who officers propositioned, you know “pay to play.” The officers propositioned women—that they could get needed items if they agreed to perform some kind of sexual service. And this is in a prison where there is not enough toilet paper to get through the month, so for indigent women, women who don’t have any money, getting things like tampons...

Li Onesto: You mean women have to pay for things like toilet paper and tampons?

Charlotte Morrison: They get a minimum supply, which any woman in the prison will tell you is not enough to get through the month. And so they have to humiliate themselves to get enough tampons, to get enough toilet paper. It’s just the fear level of deprivation in the prison, and you add a layer of abuse on to that. It’s just really a dangerous and torturous environment for women. And it’s a constitutional violation, the Department of Justice found that it’s cruel and unusual and it violates the 8th Amendment, the kind of conditions that exist in this prison.

Li Onesto: You talk about the fear factor—I read about this practice of putting women in solitary for reporting abuses.

Charlotte Morrison: This is something that has gone on for decades. That if women report that an officer had sexually abused or sexually propositioned them they were placed in punitive segregation.

Li Onesto: Can you describe what that’s like?

Charlotte Morrison: You’re put in an isolation cell and you cannot call your family, you cannot get items from the store and again we’re not talking about luxury items, we’re talking about basic items. You can’t access the store, you can’t call your family. And you’re on lockdown and you don’t know when you’re getting out. So this was the strategy that the Department of Corrections had with every woman who reported, for decades. We understand that the commissioner changed that but he did not change that until the Department of Justice (DOJ) was called upon. My office met with him multiple times trying to get him to change these policies.

We were very frustrated that in the face of such dramatic evidence of abuse, there wasn’t proper action, that in fact there was protection for this kind of environment. It wasn’t just us—you could dismiss what we say as an advocacy organization. But what we were taking to the commissioner was criminal convictions from 2009 to 2011. Any basic research of criminal conviction history shows that six of the officers had been convicted at Tutwiler for criminal sexual conduct. That’s a large number. And then what the Department of Justice was able to obtain from their investigation—they were able to obtain additional records that showed that 30 percent of the correctional staff had been subject to criminal investigation, that there had actually been over 30 officers who had been heard for criminal prosecution during that time period. So to say that the Department of Corrections (DOC) didn’t know anything was going on! The Department of Justice is saying this from their own records and the DOC’s own records are documenting all these complaints. They had one officer where there were 230 complaints made against this single officer. They know who the problem officers are and that is evidence that they understood that there is a pattern and practice of rampant sexual abuse in the prison and instead of doing something about it they protected that practice.

Li Onesto: I read one report where Equal Justice Initiative had filed a complaint in relation to a men’s prison where there was sexual abuse and brutality and it turned out that at least one of these guards had been transferred from Tutwiler where he had been accused of sexual abuse.

Charlotte Morrison: Yes there were multiple officers who had been transferred from Tutwiler to Elmore [one of the men’s prisons where there were cases of sexual abuse and brutality]. And we do believe this is a system-wide problem in Alabama, and it points to the leadership. We have a leadership who creates atmospheres in these prisons that are extraordinarily punitive and abusive and that is tolerated. In fact officers who comply with that kind of mentality and who facilitate that in the prison are often the ones who are given promotion.

Li Onesto: There is a whole view being promoted that because people are in prison, that justifies all kinds of human rights abuses.

Charlotte Morrison: One of the things that I see with the women at Tutwiler is that, you know this thing went on for so long and women were asking—either people don’t believe us, or worse yet, they believe us but think that we deserve it. So when the Department of Justice report comes out saying this is a crime because it is cruel and unusual punishment, it is a constitutional violation, there was a real sense of affirmation that they had never felt before. They had been told—and they were punished for reporting it, which sends a signal that you don’t get to complain about this—that you deserve it. So this was the first time that an authority had said to them you don’t deserve this, we don’t believe you deserve this.

The Department of Corrections never said that to them. All these women who had got locked up and put in segregation, they were never told what happened in those investigations. They were punished and then told nothing. They don’t know what happened in their individual investigations. The women who reported that they had been raped, that they had been propositioned—they don’t know what happened to those officers. Some of the officers still work there. They don’t know what happened to their claim. They make a claim that a crime happened and then nothing happened. So the Department of Justice report was the first time that anyone in authority said you don’t deserve this.

Li Onesto: During it’s investigation, the Justice Department also found evidence of other Constitutional violations, inadequate conditions, medical and mental health, or discriminatory treatment based on race or sexual orientation or gender identity. Could you talk about that as well?

Charlotte Morrison: Yes, even in our own investigation we uncovered a lot of discrimination, especially with regard to sexual orientation and additional layers of discrimination that women face. The problems of mental health, really that they don’t provide any mental health treatment. Then with regard to medical it is a very alarming situation at Tutwiler. Women that we interviewed who had breast cancer with orders to go to chemotherapy twice a week were not being brought and they would miss three to six weeks of chemotherapy. This was sometimes due to just the incompetence of staff not managing this, taking them to the wrong chemotherapy place but then not compensating them for that, getting them the chemo they needed. And women have to pay like $4 to see a nurse. So that’s another reason women need money, to even just make a complaint to a doctor.

One of the cruelest policies that we saw implemented was actually in response to our litigation that there was sexual abuse in the prison. This was, we believe a retaliatory policy where the warden at that time ordered that none of the women who were working in the infirmary could touch another inmate.

Li Onesto: And this was because?

Charlotte Morrison: Well, he was saying this was a way of addressing accusations of sexual abuse—that you cannot touch another inmate. And just to remind you—for example, one of the big problems of the medical management at Tutwiler is their management of diabetes and so there’s a large number of women who lose limbs. And when they are lying on their bed, they can’t turn over and they rely on the other inmates to turn them over so they don’t get bedsores. They rely on the other inmates to clean them when they defecate. You have women in hospice there. There’s a large aging population, a large number of women who will die at Tutwiler so they rely on the other inmates to provide them care and comfort as they’re dying through the hospice program. And so these women are now not allowed to touch them. You have very few nurses. One woman told me that she sat there for an hour waiting for a nurse to come and help her charge—the woman in hospice who had defecated on herself and was very uncomfortable and the warden had said if you touch her, you will get disciplinary.

Li Onesto: Were these hidden stories before EJI did this investigation?

Charlotte Morrison: No, they were brought to the attention of the Department of Corrections, they were brought to the attention of federal judges. There were claims that were made. But no one believes inmates and because inmates don’t get lawyers they can only make the accusations themselves and they are immediately dismissed because they are seen as un-credible. And the federal courts were notified about these problems multiple times, in handwritten pro se petitions  [legal documents filed by prisoners themselves] and they would be dismissed because the DOC would get their lawyers on the other side to get the petition dismissed. So without an advocate having your claim it’s very difficult to get attention paid to this.

Li Onesto: I know that a lot of women end up in prison for non-violent, drug crimes, doing long, unjust sentences due to mandatory sentencing laws. Maybe you could give a human picture of who these women are. You go into the prison and talk to these women and it’s really courageous that they’re coming forward with these stories.

Charlotte Morrison: The women in Tutwiler are as young as 14-years-old and then there are those who are in their 70s and 80s. Alabama has one of the highest populations of people serving life without parole. You have a large aging population at Tutwiler. Alabama also treats children, as young as 14-years-old, as adults, they’re not put somewhere else. If they’re charged and convicted as adults they go to Tutwiler, the women do. There are women there who are there for—you know writing a bad check in Alabama is a felony, so there are women there for writing a bad check, some are there for drugs. And it’s a very overcrowded system, they have almost 1,000 women at Tutwiler and it was built for 400 women. So it’s very overcrowded.

Li Onesto: Could you maybe give one story of a woman at Tutwiler, that would give a sense of both the horrendous conditions but also the courage of these women.

Charlotte Morrison: Yeah, there’s the woman, Monica Washington, who was raped by an officer. She was impregnated and she was placed in isolation.

Li Onesto: She was placed in isolation for reporting this?

Charlotte Morrison: No, it was reported anonymously, then she was placed in isolation and after she had her baby, it was taken away from her. There is another case where we were appointed by a federal court to represent it in 2010, which was when we conducted our investigation. A woman had been sodomized by a male staff member and she complained. She complained to the warden, she complained to the lieutenant, she complained to the sergeant. She was not told what happened to the male staff member and nothing in fact happened, she heard nothing. And so she filed a complaint with the federal court and the federal court appointed us to represent her and that’s when we conducted an investigation. When we did our investigation we uncovered what we believed was strong evidence that a crime had occurred and called the district attorney in that county that’s responsible for prosecuting crimes in that jurisdiction. We said we have evidence that a crime has occurred in your jurisdiction that I’d think you’d be interested in that, we just want to give you that evidence. And as soon as I told him that the victim was an incarcerated woman they said they could not conduct the investigation. They never conduct investigations into crimes against women who are incarcerated, as a matter of policy.

Li Onesto: So that was it?

Charlotte Morrison: That was it. The Department of Corrections referred the case for prosecution to the district attorney’s office, who has the only authority to prosecute this for the crime. He got the case but did no investigation. He did not talk to her, the victim, and did not collect any evidence in the case. That’s the kind of justice these women are getting. No investigation, no independent investigation of these cases. So even when you say some six officers have been convicted, they all served virtually no prison time. And that’s what happens when you don’t investigate the case, you can’t build your case, you cannot win your case, you cannot figure out what the crime was, what happened if you don’t investigate. And so you’re just relying on these minimal pleas to misdemeanors.

Li Onesto: So that’s what happens? They get convicted of some misdemeanor and get like a slap on the hand?

Charlotte Morrison: Yes. Either that or they would present no evidence to the Grand Jury and the Grand Jury dismisses the indictment because there is no case to present. They have done no investigation. All they have is the assertion of “a criminal.” In their minds, the Jury’s mind, this is an assertion by “a criminal” but the officer says it didn’t happen and they dismiss the indictment. Which is what happened in the case where we were appointed to represent. This woman, the charges were brought against the staff person, but they were dismissed because they would not investigate the case. So you have her, a prisoner’s statement vs. the staff person’s statement—so the jury believes the staff person every time.

Li Onesto: Do you feel that there is a role for people on the outside in relationship to this. I’m thinking that people hearing about this, seeing this outrage, might wonder what they can do. Like with stop-and-frisk in NYC, people in the street protesting this definitely had an impact, as well as the legal suits filed around stop-and-frisk.

Charlotte Morrison: I think that the awareness of the general public about the problems of mass incarceration [is important] and how it really defines us as a nation. The defining characteristic of our society is mass incarceration and I think that because it’s behind bars, where the public is not allowed to go, it’s so often out of view and people don’t think about it because it is closed to them. So it is really critical to have the media covering the problems of mass incarceration and creating that awareness and the public asking for more transparency about their prison system, listening, requesting more information is really a critical part to changing this reality. You know we really accept so much of it as the norm now, but it is really an abnormal reality—to be using the prisons to solve all our social problems.


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