The Weekly Abolitionist: Tutwiler, State Rape, And The Insufficiency Of Reform

Trigger warning: Rape and sexual assault

A recent investigation by the US Department of Justice found rampant sexual assault and abuse by male guards at the Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama. As the New York Post reported, “The lengthy list of indignities includes, officers forcing women into sexual acts in exchange for basic sanitary supplies, male guards openly watching women shower and use the bathroom, a staff-organized strip show, and a constant barrage of sexually offensive language, according to investigators.” Such offenses were rampant, with at least a third of guards having sexually assaulted inmates.

Such sexual abuse is not new at Tutwiler. Indeed, this kind of rampant violence against women was among the catalysts that lead activists with Amnesty International to push to pass a law prohibiting custodial sexual misconduct, also known as sexual assault by guards, in Alabama prisons in the early 2000’s. C4SS Senior Fellow Charles W. Johnson spoke at a rally for this bill in 2002, and the bill eventually passed in 2004. While the law has enabled some terminations and prosecutions of abusive guards, the Justice Department’s recent findings at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama show that it has not even come close to solving the problem of prison rape.  Only 18 cases of sexual misconduct by guards were sent by the Alabama Department of Corrections to the Elmore County District Attorney’s office between 2009 and 2013, while the DoJ’s report shows that sexual abuse continues to run rampant. And those are all the cases even sent to the District Attorney, not all of them necessarily resulted in any prosecution.

Abusive violence is a natural consequence of the structure of the prison, and thus simply attempting to regulate it will rarely make a dent. As Charles Johnson told me, “the first basic obstacle is no matter how unambiguously written and strongly worded the law is, it is always nearly impossible ever to safely try to get a hack prosecuted from inside your cell. There is just no way. The same overwhelming, full-spectrum life-and-death domination that facilitates the endemic, repeated rape also makes it impossible to defend yourself from them through legal processes.” Prisons entail a dynamic of brutal hierarchy, in which guards are given total power over prisoners. This is not unique to Alabama, and it always creates a dynamic in which guards can abuse prisoners and wield their power to shield themselves from accountability. In her book Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, Victoria Law documents cases from across the country in which women are punished and brutalized by prison guards for reporting sexual abuse.

These power dynamics are precisely why hard won legal reforms in Alabama have not changed the rampant rape culture within Tutwiler Prison. And they are also why, over a decade after the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, we still keep seeing new reports that reveal rampant rape in prisons across America. As Charles Johnson puts it, “The problem was, and remains, a problem of power, and a problem with the prison, not with the regulation of the prison.” This is why we must abolish prisons.

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