Carol Potok

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WOMENSENEWS)–"Are you going take me to see my mama?" asked a 13-year-old girl, who had often visited her mother, imprisoned in the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., through a program called Aid to Inmate Mothers.

The organization’s executive director, Carol Potok, had no answer for her.

The youngster’s mother is among 300 female inmates transferred out of state so far thisyear from Julia Tutwiler to relieve overcrowding in the Alabama facility. The mother is serving 20 years, and was incarcerated when the girl was just 18-months-old. But because the girl lives with her grandmother who is on a fixed income, she does not have the funds needed to make the nine-hour ride to visit her mother in the Louisiana prison.

The woman was moved as part of a mass transfer of Julia Tutwiler prisoners that began on April 13, when 70 were moved to the for-profit South Louisiana Correctional Center in Basile, La. Two days later, Potok–whose nonprofit organization in Montgomery strives to maintain or reestablish ties between incarcerated mothers and their children–received a fax listing the names of the women who had been moved. Potok says the move has been "devastating" for many of the imprisoned mothers and their children, whose contact has been jeopardized by the women’s transfer to a facility almost 500 miles away.

Alabama is one of few states that have transferred prisoners out of state to alleviate overcrowding. More often, transfers are used to remedy prison conditions that have become so deplorable that the only viable option is closing the facility and transporting the inmates elsewhere. But transfers to alleviate crowding may become more common amid the growing privatization of prisons.

"As private prison companies become more aggressive in marketing . . . we may see the rise in the number of being sent across state lines," says Lisa Kung, an attorney with Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, who represents the female inmates at Julia Tutwiler.

Kung was drawn into the Julia Tutwiler case last summer, after the women appealed to her to help improve their living conditions. She visited the facility and found the women crammed together in a hot, decrepit building with very little to do. Temperatures of 100 degrees combined with high humidity made living dangerously close to unbearable. Male and female inmates often sleep on floors and in the hallways of county jails throughout Alabama as they wait for beds in state facilities. Julia Tutwiler, built in the 1940s to house approximately 350 female inmates, was holding nearly 1,000.

(Ironically, the prison is named for a turn-of-the-century reformer know as the as "Angel of the Prisons." Tutwiler is credited with compelling the separation of hardened criminals from small offenders and reforming the state’s practice of leasing convicts to privately owned mines.)

Kung sued the state, on the grounds that the overcrowded conditions were not only dangerous but in violation of both the Eighth Amendment, which protects prisoners against cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment, which obligates the state to protect life, liberty or property.

"When the government decides to send someone to prison, whether it’s for murder or bad checks, the government is obligated to provide humane living conditions," says Kung. However, she was wanted the state to pursue such alternatives as sentencing reform or the creation of community programs for nonviolent drug offenders, not out-of-state transfers.

But this summer, in response to federal and state court orders to alleviate overcrowding, the Alabama Department of Corrections has begun using $2.9 million in state funds, appropriated on an emergency basis in April, to transfer some of the inmates–both female and male–to for-profit facilities out of state. So far, they are all women from Julia Tutwiler, but male inmates are expected to be transferred as well.

It’s a move that some local officials consider appropriate under the circumstances. "We are a poor state and have been hit hard by the national recession," says Alabama state Sen. Jim Preuitt, a Democrat from Talladega. "We live within our funds. We don’t spend more money than we have." Preuitt visited Julia Tutwiler last October and found conditions overcrowded but not deplorable.

"I’m not one to believe they are supposed to have things like TVs, etc.," he said. "They are in prison and should be treated like prisoners but they also should be treated humanely."

Transfers Could Create New Problems

Sheila Dauer, director of Women’s Human Rights Program at Amnesty USA, based in New York City, doesn’t look on the shipping of female prisoners as an acceptable remedy. "Sending women into another state may solve the problem of overcrowding, but may be creating another one, depending on where they are being sent," she said. For example, 5 percent of women in prison are pregnant and some states–including Louisiana–shackle pregnant inmates during labor and delivery, a practice that that Amnesty USA has protested.

The inmates’ human-rights attorney Kung plans to fight the women’s transfer. "The Eighth Amendment does not protect you from getting shipped out of state," she said. "However, this does not mean that the state can do whatever it wishes."

According to Amnesty International, 78 percent of women in state prisons are mothers and many are single parents. Statistics provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections show that the female prison population grew by 58 percent between 1990 and 2001 and is expected to grow by another 38 percent by 2005.

More female inmates mean more mothers in prison, and that is something that Kung says must be considered. "Women tend to be primary caretakers of minor children," she said. "Understanding that 97 percent of women in prison come back to the community, it is critical to maintain family and community ties."

With that in mind, Kung said the state’s limited resources would be better spent locally. "The cost, $2.5 million, will pay for less than a year. That amount of money would be much better spent on creating and expanding existing community corrections programs."

Bureau of Justice statistics show that while nationwide convictions for violent and property crimes have decreased, drug convictions have increased. According to Kung, most female inmates fall into this expanding category, which she says is better handled at a local than state or federal level.

"The majority of women who are sent to prison in Alabama are sent for drug-related crimes, including, for example, writing bad checks to cover a drug problem. Many judges would much rather sentence someone like that to a local drug-treatment program, but in most counties only private programs are available, meaning defendants with some money go to drug treatment while those without money go to prison."

Every month, Aid to Inmate Mothers volunteers transports children from throughout the state to the facility to spend a day eating hot dogs, playing games and visiting with their mothers. Potok has seen the number of children participating in the program increase steadily over the years, from 90 six years ago to about 150 now. And it’s these visits that Potok worries about when inmates are moved out of state. "For some, it may mean they just won’t get any visits," she says.

Visits Limit Recidivism

That lack of contact could have long-term effects, according to Potok. "There have been studies that show visits have a real effect on recidivism . . . because women (with children) have a real reason not to go back," she says. As for the children, Potok says "It’s already bad enough to have a parent incarcerated. All that’s exacerbated when you talk about moving parents. The children are a high-risk group and this makes them more high risk . . . especially for the possibility of repeating the legacy."

Since April, Potok has been in touch with the transferred women, who call regularly thanks to phone cards they can purchase from the prison, a privilege they lacked at Tutwiler. "I’ve heard from a number of them," she says. She says, adding that the transfer "ripped their hearts out," and that the women’s contact with loved ones "is what they live for."

The Alabama Department of Corrections is sympathetic to such concerns, but officials say they had little alternative. "It doesn’t mean we don’t care about whether or not they see their families," says Brian Corbett, public information officer at the Alabama Department of Corrections. "We had to have immediate relief to comply with the court order. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do. It’s not what we wanted to do, but something we had to do."

Carla Thompson is a freelance writer and former educator who recently relocated to Brooklyn, N.Y., from Montgomery, Al.

For more information:

Aid to Inmate Mothers:

Amnesty USA:

Southern Center for Human Rights: