MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Rape, sexual assault and harassment from male guards are a way of life for prisoners at an Alabama women's prison, according to inmates past and present, and the Justice Department is looking into the allegations.
Stephanie Hibbett spent a year locked up at the Julia Tutwiler Prison. She said in her time there, men had unrestricted access to the showers and bathrooms and would often make comments about female inmates' bodies, both to the women and among themselves.
She herself was a victim, she says. A guard kissed her and groped her breasts and buttocks while she was cleaning a trailer, she said. That sort of abuse was common, the 31-year-old said.
"A lot of it goes on in the middle of the night when no one thinks anyone is listening," she said. "I didn't sleep a lot. You'd see a woman get up and go into the bathroom and a guard go in after her and another one stand watch. Nobody would say anything. A lot were too scared."
The Justice Department investigation comes after legal aid group Equal Justice Initiative filed a complaint on May 22 asking it to look into allegations, based on interviews with more than 50 women incarcerated at the maximum-security prison. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined further comment.
Alabama Prisons Commissioner Kim Thomas told The Associated Press that the department isn't launching a separate investigation into the recent allegations because it already aggressively pursues any reports of sexual abuse. He said the Justice Department has not yet contacted the state about the claims.
"We've been very, very proactive in hunting down and investigating thoroughly any complaint we've received," Thomas said. "We've taken swift administrative action against any officers or employees who are found to have violated this. The first offense means dismissal."
Equal Justice executive director Bryan Stevenson said women are routinely punished for reporting sexual abuse or trying to speak up about it.
The group's report claims that women who say something are often placed in segregation where they are deprived of contact with the outside world and do not have access to recreation, programs or work assignments.
An examination of court records show at least six corrections employees have been convicted for sex crimes against inmates since 2003. Of those, five were guards and one a laundry room employee. The charges range from sodomy to harassment. Of the six convicted, only two were sentenced to real time in jail – a guard received six months for impregnating an inmate, and the laundry room employee received five days for having sex with an inmate.
Some of the sexual encounters were consensual, some weren't and others were coerced, Hibbett said. Some guards would smuggle in contraband such as alcohol and marijuana in exchange for sexual favors. Other guards would use their authority and threaten to revoke privileges or time off sentences for good behavior if women didn't perform sex acts.
Consensual or not, sexual contact between inmates and corrections workers has been illegal in Alabama since 2004. It's a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Hibbett was inside Tutwiler between April 2010 and May 2011. She was first locked up in Jackson County Jail for possession of forging instruments, but was transferred after escaping work release to visit her son in a hospital after he attempted suicide.
"Jackson County (Jail) is a Hilton compared to Tutwiler," Hibbett said.
Tutwiler opened in 1942 in Wetumpka, with a capacity for 400 women. Now, according to the department of corrections, it can hold 950 in nine dormitories and has a death row. It was named after Julia S. Tutwiler, a noted Alabama educator and crusader for inmate education, classification, and improvement of prison conditions.
Thomas said the prison system is making an effort to recruit more female officers and employees to Tutwiler and didn't know whether it is typical to have so many men working in a women's prison. He didn't have a percentage of men vs. women guards but Equal Justice estimated it at 60 percent men.
The guard Hibbett identified as abusing her was fired with a recommendation that he not be re-hired for state employment, records show. His files state that he teased an unnamed inmate, slapped her buttocks and placed his hands on her hips.
A 2007 Justice Department report identified Tutwiler as the women's prison with the highest incidence of sexual assaults. It ranks 11th overall of all prisons in terms of sexual assaults.
Thomas said the Corrections Department has no part in how criminal sentences are issued, but doesn't advocate for leniency for officers found guilty of sex abuses.
Stevenson said corrections employees are being under-punished for their crimes.
"Forcible rape and sexual assault of inmates is an outrageous abuse of power," Stevenson said. "We know that they (the U.S. Department of Justice) have talked a lot about this issue, and we just want them to intervene."
Hibbett said she's talking with lawyers to perhaps sue the prison for the way she was treated. Ultimately Hibbett said she'd like to see an all-female guard staff to prevent the abuse.
"The way I feel is, you're already stripped away of all your rights. You're locked up, you're away from your family, your friends. You have no freedom and then you get in there and they degrade you and beat you," Hibbett said. "When I first got home I didn't sleep for two weeks because of nightmares of that place."