WETUMPKA, Ala. — For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
Correctional officers have raped, beaten, and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation. More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.
But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation.
Now, as Alabama faces federal intervention and as the Legislature is weighing its spending choices for the coming year, it remains an open question whether the recent reports on Tutwiler are enough to prompt reform.
“Yes, we need to rectify the crimes that happened at Tutwiler, but going forward it’s a bigger problem than just Tutwiler,” said state Senator Cam Ward, a Republican from Alabaster who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re dealing with a box of dynamite.”
The solution, Ward and others say, is not to build more prisons but to change the sentencing guidelines that have filled the prisons well beyond capacity.
Just over half the state’s prisoners are locked up for drug and property crimes, a rate for nonviolent offenses that is among the highest in the nation.
“No one wants to be soft on crime, but the way we’re doing this is just stupid,” Ward said.
The Legislature is in the middle of its budget session, working over a document from Governor Robert Bentley that includes $389 million for the state’s prisons. That is about $7 million less than last year’s budget.
The Department of Corrections argues that it needs $42 million more than it had last year. Alabama prisons are running at almost double capacity, and staffing is dangerously low, said Kim T. Thomas, the department’s commissioner. He said he would use about $21 million of his request to give correctional officers a 10 percent raise and hire about 100 officers.
The federal government has stepped in to fix Alabama’s prison problems before, but it has been years since the state has faced a situation as serious as that uncovered by a series of damning investigations into Tutwiler.
“We think that there is a very strong case of constitutional violations here,” said Jocelyn Samuels, the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights for the Justice Department, who sent a 36-page report to the governor in January.
The correction department says conditions at Tutwiler were beginning to improve well before the Justice Department began its investigation in April 2013.
But women recently released and still inside say life at Tutwiler has improved only marginally. Monica Washington, who is serving 20 years for armed robbery, said she had been raped by a prison guard and gave birth to a daughter who is now 3 and living with relatives near Montgomery.
In a telephone interview, Washington said that prisoners were still fearful and that conditions remained bad.