I had coincidentally begun my career in correctional psychology in the Alabama prison system in the 1970s, at Draper prison in Elmore County. I worked for an experimental demonstration project funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. At that time, Alabama prisons were as brutal and dangerous as you might imagine. I went on to study clinical psychology at the University of Alabama in a program designed to provide improved mental health services for correctional and other legal systems.
I maintained my interest in Alabama prisons throughout my career. For the last 10 years of my career, when I was the chief of psychology services at the federal prison in Talladega, and in the 12 years since my retirement, I read the infrequent news reports about overcrowding and violence in the state prison system, and more recently, horrific reports about sexual abuse in the women’s prison.
I was recruited by an agency that provides mental health services to the state prison system, and decided to see if I could be of some assistance in what I perceived to be a very disturbing situation. I took a job as a staff psychologist, but I was quickly faced with the truth that the prison was so terribly managed that I could not be of any help.
After leaving, I wrote the Equal Justice Initiative, the prison activist group that initiated current legal proceedings about sexual abuse at Tutwiler. It put me in touch with the Department of Justice, and I spoke with its investigators.
I can add very little to the details revealed in the recent Department of Justice report. The prison was far more violent, repressive and abusive than the Draper prison of the 1970s. Mental health services were severely limited by the administration of the prison. It was, in brief, a thoroughly impossible and unethical place to work.
I was particularly concerned about the poverty of mental health services, especially because the number of paid mental health staff is impressive. However, the operation of the prison was on near-continuous lockdown, and very little mental health care was provided.
Of most concern, however, was the pervasive administrative culture of repression and abuse. Although most of the line prison staff were decent and responsible people, the standard for staff-inmate interactions was hostile and demeaning. In addition to the issues of abuse, women at Tutwiler live in very deprived conditions and had no significant self-improvement activity.
After leaving the prison, I had regrets that I did not stay longer, that I failed to effect some change in the situation. I understand, of course, that this problem is based in much larger issues and can’t be improved from the inside out. These problems have existed for years. The Alabama prison system is well-known to be backward and primitive. I was truly surprised to see that it is far worse than what I saw 40 years ago.
Local and national editorial response to the findings has been strong, emphasizing that these problems have been known and overlooked for decades. And the problems are not purely financial. The management and organization of Tutwiler is disorganized and ineffective. I observed that mental health services were chaotic, poorly managed and supervised, and were severely inhibited by repressive security procedures. Medical services appeared to be similarly inefficient.
Just as the Alabama mental health system was taken over by court order in the 1970s, a likely outcome of the current action by the federal government will be mandatory spending and the appointment of a supervising special master. It would be wise for the state to accept the sad truth of the findings and focus its attention on a responsible and moral response to the crisis.
First, it seems clearly necessary to look outside the current management regime and seek the advice of academics and professionals in the field. An excellent resource regarding mental health services is the law and psychology doctoral program at the University of Alabama. Students in training in that program could provide fresh ideas and a positive, forward-looking approach to the problem.
Alabama’s prison system is hamstrung by a long history of racial injustice, a continuing plantation mentality, immense overcrowding, inadequate rehabilitation programs and a political bias to continue to reduce spending. An objective, fresh approach is needed to turn a “culture of abuse” around.
I am gratified by the DOJ report. In addition to documenting rampant sexual abuse, the Justice Department will now expand the investigation into medical and mental health care. There may be a federal takeover similar to the emptying of Bryce mental hospital in the 1970s. It would be best if the Alabama governor and Legislature would accept the truth of the findings of the report, but presently they seem to be heading for a fight with the federal government.
There is a shortsightedness to that position. Short-term financial strangling of the prisons is not only inhumane and morally repulsive. We are not only tormenting the weakest and most damaged of our society, but we are creating tormented monsters. Brutal prisons are truly schools for crime. Almost all people in prison eventually get out. What we are doing to the women in Tutwiler, and in the men’s prisons as well, will have a great cost down the road.
Dr. Larry F. Wood is a clinical psychologist who specializes in forensic and correctional psychology.