Beyond Bars

prisonA former inmate shares about her time in Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women and how she learned to live again–in freedom.

Written by T.K. Thorne

Brenda Kennedy couldn’t wait to get to Tutwiler prison.

Forty-six years old with four children between the ages of 26 and 15, she was serving five years for embezzlement, her third time behind bars. Only two months remained until her end of sentence in a minimum-security facility/work release program in Birmingham. By contrast, Tutwiler is the state’s maximum-security prison for women in Wetumpka, Alabama. Yet Kennedy was ready to do whatever she had to do to get back to the razor-wired, chain-link fence, and heavy iron bars of Tutwiler, back to the overcrowded facility a recent Department of Justice investigation found to be a “toxic” environment.

Prison is not supposed to be a vacation, but before a 2002 lawsuit was filed, more than 1,000 women crammed into a facility intended to house about 360. In 2003 a judge found the prison’s overcrowding to be unconstitutional. It was considered the state’s most crowded and dangerous prison, rated in the top 10 worst prisons by The U.S. Justice Department investigation found women there had been “raped, sodomized, forced to engage in oral sex, and fondled.”1

The sexual encounters with guards that Kennedy observed, “weren’t physical rape, but were consensual in the sense that the women could have said ‘no.’ But,” she adds, “they can’t say ‘yes,’ either, because they don’t own themselves; they are the property of the state….We weren’t people in there; we were just numbers.”

Those women who agreed to, or even sought, sexual favors, did so for various reasons. “It was the only thing they had to barter with to get things they wanted or needed, a way to have some control,” Kennedy says. Others were coerced and reported the situation, despite fears of reprisals that included “depriving prisoners of basic nutrition or forcing them to remain in the same position for long stretches” and being placed in isolation “with limited or no access to a phone, visitors, or programs for a long time.”2

Of the 30 cases referred for criminal prosecution against the guards over the past five years, only five suspects have been found guilty, frustrating advocates, but possibly also reflecting the difficulty of gathering sufficient evidence under such circumstances.

Aside from the hostile sexual environment, the Justice Department investigation exposed other indignities that worked to dehumanize the inmates. When a count was announced, no matter where they were or what they were doing, inmates were not allowed to move. The showers had no curtains, so the women had to wait, naked and exposed, while guards (mostly male) walked through. Access to toilet paper, hygiene products, ice, and fans was limited in the white-walled 1942 building that has no heat or air conditioning. Movement and access to yards and exercise were restricted due to the overcrowding. Spider bites caused infections; hepatitis was rampant; some women were not allowed to take their prescription medicine; and punishment for rule infractions was harsh. Along with inadequate medical care, those with mental illnesses were often left alone, untreated.

Kennedy suffered from bipolar disorder, a mental illness that sent her into a state of abnormal energy and then plunged her into a depression that seemed all the deeper and darker in contrast to the energy and euphoria that preceded it. She found the adrenaline rush that accompanied the act of stealing filled that void, at least for a while.

Counseling sessions in prison, she says, lasted about five minutes. “If you talk longer than that, they cut you off.  They basically hit a checklist to see if you are suicidal or hearing voices and then it’s, ‘Next.’” Talking to fellow inmates is difficult because, “nothing stays private there. Whatever you say, everyone knows about it.”

Kennedy was on her own to fix her life. She can trace the moment when everything changed for her. She was in the shower when a friend brought her news that her daughter had given birth to twins. “It hit me that I had missed half of my kids’ lives, and now I had missed the most important moment in my daughter’s life. Nothing else mattered but that. I told myself, ‘No more; it’s over.’”

From that moment, she began serious soul searching. “Something had to change,” she realized, and “it had to start with me. It took six years to figure out my triggers that lead to trouble, to that dark place.” She takes her medication, but sometimes thoughts of her flaws and unworthiness arise, and she feels the black pit of depression clawing at her. Now, instead of turning to the thrill of committing a crime, she turns to her faith.

Tutwiler has changed, too. Since the settlement of the lawsuit brought by Southern Center for Human Rights, there have been many improvements, including making feminine hygiene products (including tampons) available as needed, shower curtains, more ice and fans, training, new policies, and, not the least, cameras. There is also a hotline to call to report abuses, but advocates like Bryan Stevenson with the Equal Justice Initiative want to see outside investigators handle complaints, rather than relying on internal investigations that might be subject to the influence of prison officials. From the prisoners’ perspective, the biggest change has been the new Tutwiler warden Bobby Barrett, who has created a much better environment. “He is fair,” Kennedy says. “You can talk to him or even ask him a question.”

Kennedy contrasts him to the warden and situation at the Birmingham Facility/Community Work Center, located at 1216 25th Street North, where she was sent shortly before her end of sentence date, Nov. 9, 2015. This facility is meant to be a minimum-security setting whose purpose, according to Department of Corrections (DOC) documents, is “to prepare inmates for release and to aid in making the transition from a structured institutional environment back into the community.” The DOC lists the population at 210 (capacity of 312), but according to Kennedy, it was understaffed, due to unhappy guards leaving. A volunteer who regularly goes to Tutwiler says she once tried to visit the Birmingham facility and was “overwhelmed” by the crowded conditions with only one guard visible. She doesn’t plan to go back.

The DOC’s web site lists the Birmingham facility as a “Community Based Facility/Community Work Center.” Unlike Tutwiler, no fences or razor wire encase the building. It sits unnoticed on the northeast edge of downtown, blending into the neighborhood. Ironically, one of the goals of the Tutwiler lawsuit is to require faster and more transfers to such facilities. It’s supposed to be a more relaxed environment, providing an opportunity to work a job and get ready for a life on the “outside.” But when Kennedy talks about the Birmingham facility, her broad smile disappears and her face tightens.

“When [the warden] came in, the first thing she did was snatch up the curtains off the windows and take away the ‘egg crate’ foam pads that made the thin mattresses covering the flat steel beds bearable. We bought them from the commissary, but suddenly they were contraband. [The warden] told us, ‘You were getting too comfortable. This is my house now.’”3

“We were treated,” Kennedy says, “like we were in a class 4 [maximum security]—“no yard time, no incentives [earned by being clear of disciplinary actions]. We weren’t allowed to eat out or visit our families, and the food was awful, mainly starches. She took away all our activities. We were in lockdown much of the time,” meaning they had to stay in the crowded bunk-bed sleeping area—no exercise, no T.V., no coffee, no smoking, no access to the phone, microwave, or the library. The library, Kennedy says, contained a set of outdated law books and a computer that was not hooked up.

The women are allowed to interview for jobs. If they get a job, 40 percent of their gross pay goes back to the state, which also charges $5 a day for transportation. If they have to pay restitution, an additional 25 percent comes off the gross pay.

Kennedy interviewed for two jobs, but didn’t get them. The correctional officer who accompanied her on the last interview charged her with “insubordination.”

“He didn’t like it because I asked questions of the employer,” she explains. “I did. I wanted to make sure I would be able to do the job.” Though a lieutenant who treated her fairly acquitted her at a hearing, she believed the warden would find ways to punish her, and she didn’t trust herself to handle her anger. With two months left before her prison time was up, she was desperate to get out of the Birmingham facility, but she had no say in the matter. There was only one way. “I pulled the suicide card,” she says. “And then they had to send me back to Tutwiler.”

But even there, she felt the warden’s ire and had to complain to get her personal items sent to her. Only some of them arrived—in three separate installments. Those possessions—clothing and items carefully accumulated for her life on the outside—were all she had in the world. According to Bob Horton, public information manager for the Department of Corrections, a prisoner is released with a bus ticket, a 30-day supply of medications, and a list of community support services.

One irony is that the lawsuit only deals with Tutwiler, not the other institutions, so the state corrections system is focused on keeping the numbers in Tutwiler below 700. “Any more and they have to hire additional corrections officers, which they can’t afford,” Kennedy says. “They play a numbers game. When I was transferred to Tutwiler to serve my last two months, my family couldn’t find me, because I was still listed as being at the Birmingham facility.”

Although the Department of Corrections provides training and reentry services, two privately funded and operated programs made a real difference for Kennedy. One is AIM (Aid for Inmate Mothers). Prison incarceration can break the important bond between mothers and children with devastating, lifelong impact for both. AIM volunteers brought Kennedy’s children and her mother to Tutwiler once a month where they spent two to three hours together with books and games provided by the organization and played in an outdoor area. In addition to special meals, AIM provided an “Angel Tree” with Christmas gifts that inmates could give their children. The organization coordinates transportation to bring children from across the state to Tutwiler. They also assist mothers in recording storybooks and messages for their children; give prison classes; provide outreach services to the families; and help mothers make a successful transition into the community with a halfway house located in Montgomery. “AIM is wonderful,” one Tutwiler inmate says. “They give me a chance to see and connect with my children, and my children give me hope.”

The Dannon Project, located in Birmingham, reached out to Kennedy while she was in the Birmingham facility. Through them, she began to see that she “didn’t have to keep repeating the same mistakes.” Federal grants and community support fund the reentry program, which includes employment preparation and job training that leads to credentials for in-demand industries, as well as mentoring and assistance connecting to supportive services such as housing, substance abuse programs, and mental health treatment. “It’s not a job for the people at Dannon,” Kennedy says. “It’s a passion.” They helped her get an apartment, which she shares with another former inmate while she works part time with Dannon and completes her training as a tax auditor. She is determined not to waste her opportunities.

“It is a fabulous feeling to look up without bars between you and the sky,” she says.  “And I am not about to give that up again. Me and my roommate have a special ‘word,’ and sometimes we just look at each other and say it, and we know what it means—what it really means.”

Their word is “free.”

Located in Wetumpka, the Julia Tutwiler Prison was Alabama’s only maximum-security prison for women. Built in 1942, Tutwiler originally had space for 400 inmates; later, there was space for up to 700, though it was reported that Tutwiler was severely overcrowded, which contributed to the poor living conditions. In February of 2016, Gov. Robert Bentley announced the closing of Tutwiler.

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