Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Southern Center Seeks to Close Tutwiler

Montgomery Advertiser

Groups seek shuttering of Alabama women's prison

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) -- An Atlanta-based law firm that has fought to improve conditions at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka is now shifting its focus to shutting down the prison altogether.

The Southern Center for Human Rights has been involved in a legal battle over conditions at the 65-year-old facility for the past five years. But the center said in a recent job announcement that it is seeking someone to lead a campaign "to close the brutal Tutwiler Prison and transform Alabama's women's criminal justice system into one that is small, family-oriented, community-based and rehabilitative."

"The kind of real solution that Alabama needs isn't something you can litigate your way into," Lisa Kung, the center's director, told the Press-Register in an interview last week.

The e-mailed announcement set a Dec. 15 deadline for applications, but the position remains open, she said.

Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett was unfamiliar with the planned campaign but said such a makeover would require the Legislature to change state sentencing laws. Last month, Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen said that he wanted to replace Tutwiler by next year.

Corbett last week called that "a best-case scenario."

Finding alternatives to prison "is not a women-specific issue," Corbett added. More than half of Alabama's 67 counties now have community corrections programs offering drug courts and other options to keep minor or first-time offenders out of jail.

"The goal is to expand that statewide," Corbett said.

Joining the center's campaign are two Montgomery-based groups, Kung said: Aid to Inmate Mothers, Inc., and the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

A campaign of this type would apparently be unprecedented for Alabama, but there are some successful parallels elsewhere, said Jason Zeidenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., organization that promotes alternatives to incarceration.

A confluence of circumstances typically drives such changes, he said: Among them: "the mix of a budget crisis, people pressing for different policies and the prisons themselves are of such decrepitude that it makes sense to close them."

As of November, Tutwiler, Alabama's lone prison for women, held 985 inmates, well above its current capacity of 702, Corbett said, citing the latest corrections department numbers.

In 2002, the Southern Center filed a federal lawsuit alleging that conditions at the maximum-security lock-up north of Montgomery violated the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In a ruling that same year, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson of Montgomery described conditions as "essentially a time bomb ready to explode facility-wide at any unexpected moment."

While Gov. Bob Riley's administration agreed to reduce overcrowding and make other improvementsofficials have since struggled to comply with the settlement. In August, after inmate lawyers sought to have the state found in contempt, the Corrections Department agreed to six years of court-ordered monitoring instead of the original four years.

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