“Deliberate Indifference” to Prison Sex Abuse Sets Stage for 8th Amendment Challenge

“Deliberate indifference” to prison sex abuse sets stage for 8th Amendment challenge

by Tiffany Ray

If it’s true that the measure of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,[1] then Alabama is a barbaric place. The proliferation of sexual misconduct, coercion, vulgarity and mistreatment that constitutes life at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., is by now well known: A 36-page report by the U.S. Department of Justice, released early this year and widely reported in the press, documents a 20-year history of “unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse and harassment” that has left the women incarcerated there to “universally fear for their safety.”[2]

In its report, which is the result of an extensive investigation, the DOJ asserts that, for nearly two decades, guards at Tutwiler have raped and sodomized inmates and coerced them into performing oral sex.[3] They have forced them to submit to sexual abuse in order to receive basic necessities such as tampons or laundry service.[4] They have watched the women as they take off their clothes, shower, and use the toilet, and they have subjected them to sexually explicit verbal abuse.[5] Allegations of such abuse are investigated superficially, if at all, and women who have reported such allegations have been subjected to further abuse by guards, to segregation, or to lie detector tests.[6]

The DOJ asserts that the state has violated (and presumably continues to violate) the Eighth Amendment rights of Tutwiler prisoners by “failing to protect [them] from harm due to sexual abuse and harassment from correctional staff.”[7] The Eighth Amendment provides board protection to prisoners from “cruel and unusual punishment” by government, but what are the contours of that right?

The Supreme Court has found that the test for what constitutes a cruel and unusual condition is not static, but rather drawn “from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”[8] Surely what is happening at Tutwiler Prison is indecent by any standard. According to the Court, the conditions “must not involve the wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain, nor . . . be grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime warranting imprisonment.”[9] The Constitution “’does not mandate comfortable prisons,’ (citation omitted), but neither does it permit inhumane ones.”[10] Conditions may be “restrictive” or even “harsh” and still be Constitutional.[11]  However, “a prison official’s ‘deliberate indifference’ to a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate violates the Eighth Amendment.”[12]

In Farmer v. Brennan, one of three cases cited by the DOJ to support its assertion of a constitutional violation, the Supreme Court determined that deliberate indifference is shown when an official was “subjectively aware of the risk.”[13] In that case, a transsexual prisoner who was biologically male and projected feminine characteristics was raped and beaten after being placed in the general male population of a high-security prison.[14] Vacating and remanding a lower-court ruling for defendants in the case, the Court found that a prison official could be held liable for denying a prisoner humane confinement conditions if the official “knows that inmates face a substantial risk of serious harm and disregard that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it.”[15]

The Court determined that deliberate indifference of prison officials equated to the subjective recklessness requirement of criminal law; something more than negligence but less than “acts or omissions for the very purpose of causing harm or with knowledge that harm will result.”[16] The Court said prison officials need not be aware of a specific risk from a specific source: “. . . [I]t does not matter whether the risk comes from a single source or multiple sources, any more than it matters whether a prisoner faces an excessive risk of attack for reasons personal to him or because all prisoners in his situation face such a risk.”[17]

In Farmer, the Court said the Eighth Amendment both constrains the actions of prison officials – preventing them, for example, from using excessive force against a prisoner – and also imposes duties on them to provide “humane conditions of confinement.”[18] Specifically, officials must “ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, and must take ‘reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates.’”[19] In Helling v. McKinney, the Court found that deliberate indifference to conditions that pose a serious risk to future health violates Eighth Amendment standards, even when no harm has yet occurred.[20] Prisoners have found relief from the courts from exposed electrical wiring, exposure to contagious diseases from other inmates, and, in Helling, from constant exposure to secondhand smoke.[21]

From such a footing, it does not seem far to go to determine that inmates deserve relief from the “universal fear” of sexual abuse and retaliation by their jailers. No one should live day to day with the fear that they might be the next target for abuse, and particularly in a place that is designed to provide them no means of escape. Just the threat of such abuse is corrosive and debilitating, particularly for the women at Tutwiler who, the DOJ says, are already more vulnerable because they are more likely to have been a victim of abuse prior to incarceration.[22] Surely the state has a duty to protect inmates from such treatment.

Moreover, it appears from the DOJ report that state officials have had notice of sex-abuse problems at Tutwiler since at least 1995, when the agency reported it as part of an investigation into the prison’s treatment of mental health issues.[23] More recent evidence was available as well: A 2007 DOJ report of sexual assault in prisons found that Tutwiler was among the worst offenders, ranking 11th out of 146 prison facilities for reports of sexual assault.[24] A report by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative in 2012 found that conditions had not improved since 2007 and that “pervasive sexual misconduct” continued.[25] It seems clear that the state knew women at Tutwiler were being sexually abused and yet failed to act to prevent it.

News of poor prison conditions in Alabama is hardly a shock, but the level of depravity and disregard apparently at work at Tutwiler is particularly galling. State officials have attempted to defend the indefensible; Kim Thomas, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, for example, has said the DOJ’s findings were “off-base,” and prison conditions were not unconstitutional, though he declined to talk in specifics.[26]  Thomas said the department had requested an independent examination by the National Institute of Corrections, part of the DOJ, in 2012 following the Equal Justice Initiative reports of sexual abuse at Tutwiler and has been working to implement changes since then.[27] Among the improvements cited by officials are efforts to recruit more female prison staff at Tutwiler and train prison staff on proper management of female inmates, and plans to install security cameras.[28]

The fact that such improvements are not already an integral part of Tutwiler management would suggest a level of long-term apathy that casts doubt on the ability of state officials to take meaningful action now. Clearly, the state has been on notice for a long time that rights violations were occurring – or at the very least, were likely occurring – at Tutwiler. And yet the “proactive” steps cited by officials to curb such abuses began only a couple of years ago, and have apparently gotten nowhere. Meanwhile, Alabama prisons have been perennially underfunded, and there is no political gain for legislators in advocating an appropriation of additional resources for the benefit of convicted criminals. Thus, there is little hope of any drastic commitment by the Legislature to push through needed reforms.

Fortunately for the inmates of Julia Tutwiler Prison, the DOJ investigation appears far from over. The pervasiveness of sex-abuse allegations has led the DOJ to expand its examination to other, related areas: excessive use of force, constitutionally inadequate conditions of confinement, constitutionally inadequate medical and mental health care, and discriminatory treatment based on national origin, sexual orientation, and gender identity.[29] The DOJ report also included a litany of reforms the agency says must be implemented to curb sexual misconduct by prison staff, as well as the threat of a legal action brought by the Attorney General if they are not.[30]


[1] This statement is often attributed to Fyodor Dostoyevsky. See, e.g., Fyodor Dostoyevsky quotes, www.ThinkExist.com, available at http://thinkexist.com/quotation/the_degree_of_civilization_in_a_society_can_be/166419.html.

[2] Letter from Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, to Hon. Robert Bentley, Governor of Alabama (Jan. 17, 2014), http://media.al.com/opinion/other/2014%201%2017%20Tutwiler%20Findings%20Letter%20%282%29.pdf.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 346 (1981).

[9]  Id. at 347.

[10] Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994).

[11] Rhodes, 452 U.S. at 347.

[12] Farmer, 511 U.S. at 829.

[13] Id. at 828-29.

[14] Id. at 829-30.

[15] Id. at 848.

[16] Id. at 835.

[17] Id. at 843 (quoting Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25 (1993)).

[18] Id. at 832.

[19] Id.

[20] 509 U.S. 25, 33 (1993).

[21] Id. at 34.

[22] See Letter from Jocelyn Samuels to Hon. Robert Bentley, supra note 2.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Mike Cason, Department of Justice finds conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison to be unconstitutional, al.com, Jan. 17, 2014, http://blog.al.com/wire/2014/01/department_of_justice_finds_un.html.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] See Letter from Jocelyn Samuels to Hon. Robert Bentley, supra note 2.

[30] Id.

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