Tutwiler warden copes with 'ticking time bomb'

8th April, 2003
The Birmingham News
News Staff Writer

WETUMPKA - A copy of the U.S. Constitution hangs in one of the inmate dorms in Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

The dorm's walls are painted a medicinal pink, thought to be soothing for the recovering addicts assigned to this particular dorm, which is funded by federal crime prevention money. Inmates are taught to be patriotic in the "crime bill" dorm.

Yet four months after a federal judge declared conditions in the prison violated the promises in the Constitution, little has changed behind the razor wire and clanging doors of Alabama's only lockup for women.

"I would love for every legislator to come visit this prison," said Gladys Deese, Tutwiler's warden since 2001. Over the last two years about five lawmakers have stopped in, as the strains of crowding get worse.

"Nobody's come this session," Deese said.

Meantime, it falls on Deese to keep prisoners and staff safe in this "ticking time bomb," as it was described in the court's Dec. 2 order.

Last week, there were 992 women in a prison built for 342.

Women line hallways between the dorms. Others curl up in beds, asleep amid the midday clamor of prison life. The sick clog the narrow hallway of the medical unit, lying on cots while the traffic of nurses and patients shuffles by. The inmates in the nearby HIV-positive section shout through the bars of their isolation unit.

Prisoners cram knee-to-knee into GED classrooms, elbow-to-elbow in court-ordered drug-rehab sessions. There is a waiting list for just about anything that would help a criminal do better on the outside, but no space to add more classes.

Last week, a Baldwin County judge handed down another order attempting to remedy deficiencies at Tutwiler. The judge wants a 12-month drug treatment program at the women's prison, similar to ones offered at some men's prisons.

At times, judges order drug offenders to undergo rehab as part of their sentence. But when rehab is not quickly available, non-violent addicts take up precious space waiting on a program.

"The way Alabama brags about how we house inmates lower than other states. I don't think that's something to brag about," Deese said.

"Seventy percent of your prisoners are going to return to society. Do you want them returned with a skill or a GED, or having been warehoused, sitting around thinking about how not to get caught the next time?" Deese said.

Smoking is banned inside, yet dorms reek of cigarettes because some rules are impossible to enforce under these conditions. In order to feed everyone, breakfast begins at 3:40 a.m.

During the day, the inmates with jobs are at work and the inmates enrolled in classes are in school. Hundreds of idle bodies in white prison uniforms mill around the dorms and halls.

Fans are going in early spring warm weather. There is no air conditioner.

It is a decrepit, dismal place with holes worn through the floor tiles and bare dirt across much of the recreation yard.

The Siegelman administration would not let reporters see this, citing security risks. Gov. Bob Riley's officials have taken a different tack. Corrections Commissioner Donal Campbell wants the public and the Legislature to view the crowded prisons in hopes the disturbing sardine-can scenes will urge them to act.

So far, the Legislature has approved $2.7 million in emergency funding because the state has been sued over Tutwiler's unsafe conditions. It would pay for temporarily housing about 290 Tutwiler women in a Louisiana private prison. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, who found the prison unconstitutionally unsafe, has not yet approved the transfer plan.

And it is a short-term solution. Long-term, Campbell has said he needs a $126 million increase above last year's $258 million corrections budget. That's for the entire department, but some would be used for a new women's prison.

State agencies are being asked to cut budgets 5 percent this year. It's unlikely, even with federal courts closing in, that prisons will get a hefty increase.

The warden:

Deese is 53, a tall, stern woman with a gray bob. She walks the halls with a two-way radio, and she always carries something that can be used as a weapon, if only a ball-point pen.

Even with several layers of supervisors below her, inmates call her by name. Often. Warden Deese. Warden Deese. Warden. Ms. Deese. She cannot enter a dorm without seeing a familiar face, without someone approaching with a request.

When a woman who wants something suggests she is one of the warden's favorite inmates, Deese allows a hint of a smile.

"I don't have favorite inmates," she replies.

Deese came to work in 1979 when Tutwiler had 169 inmates. The job description said corrections "counselor." She had a psychology degree and was pursuing a master's in counseling from Troy State University. She pictured an office, a desk and one-on-one sessions with prisoners. But "counselor" was the title used for corrections officers, the security staff. "I didn't find out until I came to work," she said.

She soon realized she could do plenty of counseling in a uniform, walking the dorms and talking to troubled women.

Moving up the ranks, she served a decade at the Corrections Department training academy. She returned to Tutwiler in 1997.

She's seen the average inmate age drop, and the crowding and costs soar. She stays sane by focusing on one day at a time.

"You do what you can do, within your means," she says. "I have to deal with the here and now."

Deese tries to project the decent, acceptable side of this prison. Then her voice cracks and her eyes dampen when she talks about the tense conditions.

"I don't see how we can continue to do this. We're going to need some relief. It's just human nature," she said. "The citizens of Alabama are going to have to realize we can't continue to incarcerate at the level we incarcerate. If they do insist on it, they're going to have to foot the bill."

Tutwiler is on track, for the second year in a row, to have the highest assault rate of any prison in the state. There have been 42 this fiscal year; only a men's prison in Bibb County with 1,996 inmates has more. If not for the training and professionalism of the corrections staff, their willingness to put in huge amounts of overtime, problems would be more severe, Deese said.

Most of the officers work 12-hour days. "We don't allow any more than 16-hour days," she said.

Hope can be found in the outlying buildings that house part of J.F. Ingram State Technical College.

Classes are available in computer information systems, electronic repair, floral design, upholstery, welding and auto and marine repair. Mechanics instructor David Naile is proud of his boat repair program.

"I can guarantee 100 percent placement," he said, in the sun-streaked garage that smells of motor oil.

He has space for about seven marine students at a time. So, there's a waiting list.

"These shops, the physical size of them restricts you," Naile said.

There are also academic classes in math, English and General Educational Development certificate preparation. A sign on the GED classroom says "Get your GED today."

Well, maybe not today. But they'll put your name to the waiting list.