Alabama's female prisoners may soon live with fewer roaches and spiders in their dorms.
They could get more ice, fans and showers at Tutwiler Prison for Women, where summer temperatures regularly rise above 85 degrees. And they could have access to better medical care, more classes and more drug treatment.
It took a federal lawsuit to bring about basic, constitutional conditions at Alabama's only women's prison. A two-part settlement in the case was filed Monday. It awaits the approval of U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson.
In it, the Alabama Department of Corrections agreed to dozens of ways to improve medical and mental health care, along with poor living conditions at Tutwiler.
"What we've reached is an agreement on a basic framework to keep the prison from being as violent and inhumane as it had become when there were 1,000 women in that prison," said Lisa Kung, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which represents the prisoners. "It certainly is not going to make the place comfortable."
The agreement calls for a doctor, mental health expert and attorneys and advocates from the Southern Center to monitor the prison for four years to ensure the state is following the rules.
The Atlanta-based nonprofit law firm filed the lawsuit in 2002. At the time, Tutwiler was the state's most dangerous and crowded prison, with more than 1,000 women in space for about 360. The class-action lawsuit was assigned to Thompson. He visited the Wetumpka lockup, called it a "ticking time bomb" and ruled it unconstitutional in December 2002.
DOC spokesman Brian Corbett said the department could not comment on the settlement until Thompson makes it final.
Vanessa Filley, an investigator with the Southern Center who visited the prison weekly and documented the problems, credited "the courage of the women to speak out" as a key factor in bringing about changes.
"There was definitely fear of repercussion in the beginning," Filley said.
With the settlement, Filley and others from the Southern Center, along with DOC staff, will review prisoners' files every six months in an effort to move them out of prison and into work release and community corrections programs faster.
Now, "That process is not being reviewed enough to make sure women are moving forward," said Gretchen Rohr, an attorney with Holland & Knight, another firm representing inmates.
All along, attorneys for the prisoners have worked to reduce Tutwiler's population. The lawsuit initially led to increased paroles and transfers of several hundred women to a Louisiana private prison because conditions were so grim at Tutwiler.
The settlement effectively would lower the number of prisoners to 700 by November. If it rose, the state would have to add officers, which it cannot afford to do.
The medical part of the settlement highlights gaps in care and lays out specific fixes.
"Sick call shall not be conducted between midnight and 6 a.m.," it says.
When women enter prison, they would have to be allowed to continue taking prescription medications. The prison dentist would have to be licensed and provide dentures when necessary.
The settlement also calls for improved hepatitis treatment, infection control and care for the most vulnerable populations in the prison - elderly patients, women with terminal illnesses and women with serious mental health conditions, according to the Southern Center.
Over the course of the lawsuit, Tutwiler authorities began severe forms of punishment for prisoners who received disciplinary reports. The settlement halts that treatment, banning the state from depriving prisoners of basic nutrition or forcing them to remain in the same position for long stretches. That included giving prisoners only one roll as lunch and one as supper. "One had cheese in it. One had peanut butter in it," Filley said.
Entire sections of the settlement address heat and pest control. And it would require the state to buy five new ice machines to increase ice production by 50 percent. Tutwiler is not air-conditioned.
Built in 1942, the prison has chronic maintenance problems. Filley said that even monthly pest control will not eradicate the spider problem, which leads to bites and staph infections.
"The place is a dump and the changes that are being made by the lawsuit are minimal," she said.
Kung said the settlement does not address all of the problems, and the majority of Tutwiler prisoners would be better served in community corrections settings.
"Until Alabama passes genuine sentencing reform, the prison is going to continue being a warehouse," Kung said. "The spotlight now should be on the state of Alabama to take the opportunity to pass meaningful sentencing reform so that they'll be able to keep the population at a manageable level without further court orders."
It's unknown how much the settlement would cost the state. At a minimum, DOC would have to pay the medical and mental health monitor for several years. It would have to renovate a dorm to provide better mental health treatment, crisis intervention cells and space to stabilize psychiatric patients.
Earlier this year, before the settlement, prisoner Carolyn Frazier, who suffered from severe mental illness, was left alone and untreated. She committed suicide.