Judge presses Riley for relief at prison

 Plans to fine state if unsafe conditions at Tutwiler not fixed 

01/22/03, Birmingham News

News staff writer

  MONTGOMERY A federal judge pressed his orders to eliminate unconstitutional conditions at Tutwiler Prison for Women directly to Gov. Bob Riley's administration in its first day in power Tuesday. 

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, who ruled Dec. 2 that Tutwiler is unsafe, said at a court hearing on Tuesday that he will impose contempt fines against the state unless constitutional violations are remedied. 

Troy King, the governor's legal adviser, told Thompson that Riley has hired John Reese, a prison expert from Indiana, to study the Alabama prison system and report to the governor within 60 days. 

Riley is committed, King said Tuesday, to trying to remedy conditions at Tutwiler that Thompson has said are unconstitutional. 

"Does he understand that lack of money is not a defense?" Thompson asked. 

"Yes," said King. "We certainly understand the urgency." 

Thompson had ordered the state to come up with a plan to remedy "the substantial risk of serious harm to prisoners caused by Tutwiler's greatly overcrowded and significantly understaffed open dorms." 

The state's plan, filed Dec. 30, included a request for Thompson to order Alabama counties to stop sending inmates to Tutwiler for five months while the state asks the Legislature for emergency money to make improvements. 

Lisa Kung of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, representing state convicts, told Thompson that he lacks authority under federal law to order the release or non-admission of inmates to a prison. 

She said Thompson can, however, order the state to increase staff levels, including to transfer 58 officers from other prisons, if necessary, and to
convert open dormitories at Tutwiler to individual cells. 

The state is looking to add between six and 18 officers to Tutwiler when the next class graduates in April from the prison system's training academy in
Selma. But adding 18 officers still would leave Tutwiler with 30 fewer officers than the prison's warden says is necessary to run the prison, Kung said.

Billy Addison, an attorney for the prison system, said transferring 58 officers from already understaffed prisons for male inmates "is not realistic or safe."
Addison said the state can do everything in its plan, but everything the plaintiffs have suggested costs money the department doesn't have. 

"If you have to get more money, you just have to get more money," said Thompson. "If that means contempt fines, then the state pays contempt fines. Lack of funds is not a defense." 

Thompson said he will issue an order in the case within the next week.