By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Jan 22 (Reuters) - Inmates at an Alabama women's prison have been sexually abused and harassed by guards and in some instances allegedly forced to perform sex acts to obtain basic sanitary supplies, a U.S. Department of Justice report released on Wednesday said.
The report was the result of a months-long investigation into conditions at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, which is located in central Alabama and holds more than 900 inmates. It is also home to the only death row for women in the state.
"The women at Tutwiler universally fear for their safety," federal officials wrote in a 36-page letter to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley.
"They live in a sexualized environment with repeated and open sexual behavior including: abusive sexual contact between staff and prisoners, sexualized activity, including a strip show condoned by staff," the report said.
The report found that allegations of sexual abuse are "grossly underreported" because of inmates' fear of retaliation.
The Alabama Department of Corrections is failing to protect the prison's inmates in violation of their constitutional rights, the Justice Department said.
"We conclude that the State of Alabama violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution by failing to protect women prisoners at Tutwiler from harm due to sexual abuse and harassment from correctional staff," the letter said.
Kim Thomas, Alabama's corrections commissioner, said the state has been working to improve conditions at the prison and outlined a 58-point action plan he said he implemented last year.
"We are actively combating and correcting issues of concern at Tutwiler," he said. "We absolutely will not tolerate any inappropriate behavior."
The report was delivered last week to Bentley. In comments to local media, he has said he was not surprised by the results of the investigation and said the state had been aware of the problems at the prison.
Justice Department officials said their report was based on interviews with dozens of prisoners during a visit to the facility in April.
Investigators also received more than 200 letters from prisoners, roughly a quarter of Tutwiler's prison population at the time, detailing a range of inmates' concerns about sexual abuse and harassment, according to the report.
"These problems have been festering for years and are well known to Alabama prison officials," acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels said in a statement.
The Justice Department said it plans to expand its investigation to examine allegations of excessive use of force, constitutionally inadequate conditions of confinement and prisoner health care.
Bryan Stevenson, executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal firm in Montgomery, Alabama, said he hoped the report would prod state officials to move more quickly to reform the prison.
"Too little has been done to correct the problems," he said. (Editing by Kevin Gray and Leslie Adler)