United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division
MYRON H. THOMPSON, District Judge.
Pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997 et seq., plaintiff United States of America filed this lawsuit naming as defendants the State of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections (hereinafter jointly referred to as "the State") and claiming that the State has subjected prisoners at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women to an ongoing and systemic practice of sexual abuse and sexual harassment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The court has jurisdiction over this action under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 (federal question) and 1345 (proceeding commenced by United States).
This cause is before the court on the parties' joint motion to enter settlement agreement. For the reasons that follow and based on the representations made at an on-the-record hearing on June 8, 2015, the court will adopt the terms of the agreement as a consent decree of this court; grant the motion to dismiss, albeit conditionally and without prejudice, that is, with final dismissal dependent on compliance with the settlement agreement; and retain jurisdiction for the purpose of enforcing the consent decree, including as well to resolve any disputes arising out of the agreement and to enter final dismissal of the matter as contemplated by the agreement in accordance with federal law.
Before the United States filed this complaint, the parties had already engaged in protracted negotiations and come to an agreement as to what needed to be done to remedy alleged sexual abuse at Tutwiler. Their detailed plan, which is set forth in their settlement agreement, is the product of commendable cooperation on both sides. In reaching this settlement, the parties determined that they need the injunctive power of this court to ensure that women confined at the Tutwiler facility will be treated in accordance with constitutional standards. As such, the same day that the United States filed its complaint, the parties jointly filed a motion for the court to enter their agreement as an order of the court. As succinctly embodied in their proposed order, the parties also asked the court, first, to dismiss the complaint "conditionally" and "WITHOUT PREJUDICE pursuant to Rule 41(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, " that is, to make "Final dismissal... conditioned on compliance with the Settlement Agreement, " Proposed order (doc. no. 2-2); and, second, to retain jurisdiction over the agreement for enforcement purposes, including as well "to resolve any disputes arising out of the Settlement Agreement and to enter final dismissal of the matter as contemplated by the Settlement Agreement." Id.
As stated above, this case arises from the United States' allegations that the State has subjected prisoners at Tutwiler to sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Accordingly, in assessing the agreement, the court relies on these allegations (unchallenged by the State for the limited purpose of assessing the agreement) as set forth in the complaint.
Tutwiler is a maximum-security women's prison operated by the State in Wetumpka, Alabama. In 2013, the Department of Justice investigated allegations of staff sexual abuse and sexual harassment there. What it asserts to have found is, if true, gut-wrenching and horrific. It is alleged that staff at Tutwiler raped and sexually abused women in their custody; required them to submit to sexual advances in order to obtain necessities or avoid punishment; and knowingly allowed a sexually violent environment to persist. It is further alleged that the State does not provide women any means to file administrative grievances to report sexual abuse and that the State failed to investigate allegations of abuse adequately. Moreover, it is alleged that staff retaliated against those who did attempt to report abuse by placing them in segregation and threatening them with physical assault. It is further alleged that the State failed to discipline appropriately both low-level staff and high-level officials who engaged in, encouraged, or deliberately disregarded the abuse and that some staff members were permitted to resign in lieu of termination, others were reassigned to different facilities, and others were promoted.
It is also alleged that the State failed to implement policies or manage the facility in a way that met constitutional standards and failed to institute gender-responsive policies and procedures to address sexual abuse and harassment, to staff the facility at safe levels, or to develop a classification system that would protect potential victims of abuse.
These allegations are not new. In 1995, the Department of Justice notified the State of allegations of sexual abuse by staff at Tutwiler; and, in 2007, it identified Tutwiler as the women's prison with the highest rate of sexual-assault allegations in the country. Several reports have been issued since then by other organizations that discuss the continuing nature of the alleged problem.
The proposed settlement agreement mandates numerous changes in prison policies and establishes procedures to ensure more rigorous protection from sexual abuse for prisoners at Tutwiler.
The agreement requires the State to implement fully all changes within nine months. At that time, and every six months thereafter, it requires that the court receive a compliance report from the parties' independent monitor, a corrections expert who will ensure that the terms of the agreement are met. After the State has achieved substantial compliance with all substantive provisions of the agreement in three consecutive compliance reports, that is, for 18 consecutive months, the agreement will terminate.
Federal law requires litigation over prison conditions to comply with the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3626. "The PLRA strictly limits the prospective relief a federal court may order in cases concerning prison conditions." Gaddis v. Campbell, 301 F.Supp.2d 1310, 1313 (M.D. Ala. 2004) (Thompson, J.). The PLRA's restrictions extend to consent decrees. 18 U.S.C. § 3626(c)(1). By contrast, private settlement agreements whose terms are not subject to federal-court enforcement (but may be enforceable under state law) do not need to abide by the PLRA's requirements. 18 U.S.C. § 3626(c)(2). In this case, the parties ...