Word Is…: Special Sit-Down Session with Women at Tutwiler

On August 3rd and 4th, the Commission on Girls and Women in the Criminal Justice System toured Alabama’s women’s prisons. It is the Commission’s mandate to assess any steps taken to implement 8 recommendations it put forth in 2008 to make the criminal justice system more gender responsive.  Included in those is the recommendation that Tutwiler be closed and torn down. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) arranged for the Commission to have a Q&A session with 10 women currently incarcerated at Tutwiler. The profiles of the women the Commission met with ranged from women who have written bad checks, to women with low-level charges who have also been diagnosed with a mental illness, to women serving time for violent crimes committed against their abusers.

Some of the questions the Commission asked focused on the women’s plans for their lives after prison, things the general public should know about life at Tutwiler, mental health care in prison, and what the women would say to Alabama’s judges, parole board members, and ADOC’scommissioners if they had the chance to speak with them.
Here are some insights from the Q&A session (names witheld):
One woman stated that although she has received substance abuse treatment in prison, she must live in a dormitory full of women that have not yet undergone treatment. The lack of transition between treatment and reentering the prison’s general population is a real detriment to her recovery and that of other women. Several of the women felt what they learned in rehabilitative programs was diminished in the dorms as they must live with other women who have not yet entered or completed these programs.
Another woman shared her early life experiences that lead her to prison– a childhood and young adulthood that found her without any support system whatsoever. She is 5 years into her sentence for fraudulent use of a credit card.  Her end-of-sentence date is another 15 years away.
Another woman spoke strongly about her goal to educate women on the subject of domestic violence if ever released from prison. She spoke about the fear that she felt when she was being abused by her husband, and how she had been afraid to seek help and refuge from him. She would like to educate other women on the importance of recognizing abuse and seeking help. She is currently serving a life sentence. 

Several of the women felt that state judges could do a better job in assessing the best possible path for rehabilitation for women entering the criminal justice system by deferring more cases to Community Corrections (CC).

The women found that Pardons & Paroles (P&P) should be more sensitive to the person behind the identification number, and to life changes that have occurred for her while serving her time. P&P should also allow family & close friends a more reasonable amount of time to speak on behalf of the imprisoned at parole hearings and, most of all, allow prisoners to attend their parole hearings.

Eight out of ten women at the Q&A session had court-appointed attorneys.  Appointed attorneys left many of the inmates feeling alone & unsure about court procedures leading up to incarceration. Many did not feel that they were well represented.

A couple of women said that when they were released from prison before, they lacked a pre-release transition period.  They were thrust back into the same conditions that brought them to prison in the first place. While learning to follow rules in prison has had a rehabilitating effect, it is different when one is faced with making tough decisions & making ends meet. It can be too much to handle without a pre-arranged support network to get through one’s day-to-day trials. 

Many prisoners do not have the ability to pay any restitution while incarcerated, and because there is no way to do so, one woman stated that the struggle to pay her restitution once released pushed her right back into her old habit of looking for fast money to pay off debts. It is harder for a woman granted parole to pay off restitution when she also has to manage to survive (i.e. pay for food, shelter, clothing). However, if she could come out of prison with some of that debt reduced by having worked for a wage while in prison, then her chances of succeeding once released would improve dramatically.

Everyone benefited from the session as information and experiences were shared in a manner that many said has never happened before. There is no doubt that the opportunity to speak with women living in Tutwiler will propel the Commission’s ongoing efforts to improve Alabama’s criminal justice system in a powerful way. AWRN hopes that such sessions will continue to be scheduled by lawmakers, agencies, and advocacy groups and that they will continue to receive the ADOC’s strong support and facilitation.


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