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Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women located in Wetumpka, Alabama
Photo by Rivers A. Langley (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

I remember the first day I stepped foot inside a prison. It was 1995. The place was eerie and intimidating. I was 20 years old and thought I might die.

But it didn’t take long for me to discover that many of the women incarcerated alongside me were not to be feared. Plenty of them were, like me, victims of violence. They had been sent to prison for committing crimes to escape relationships in which they feared being killed. I count myself among them. I was convicted of murder, but I maintain that I killed my neighbor in self-defense to stop him from stabbing me to death.

For myself and others, prison has proven as deadly or more deadly than the abuse we encountered before it. That abuse has followed us behind bars in a disturbing cycle of unending harm.

I reside at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, the only women’s supermax prison in Alabama. Tutwiler was opened in 1942 and named after an advocate of prison education and reform. Its infrastructure is outdated and the prison is perpetually over capacity, creating significant public health concerns. And it has been working for years to fully comply with a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit concerning sexual abuse from prison staff.

Prisons across the U.S. are dangerous and deadly, but Alabama prisons are notoriously awful. Last year, 325 people died in the state prison system — a high majority of these deaths are men. That number is a new record high for Alabama prisons, according to the nonprofit Alabama Appleseed. For years, Alabama’s prison homicide rate has been amongst the highest in the country

The dangers of Tutwiler

There are a variety of ways that we encounter abuse inside Tutwiler. I have recently experienced it through mental and emotional torment. For example, my locker box was taken from me by corrections officers in October 2023 after a drug dog allegedly indicated that the box contained drugs — other inmates who saw the search said the dog didn’t give the box special attention. Inside that box were the only pictures and letters I had from my children and family, along with six years of journals. If I was losing my mind, if I wanted to die or keep living, I wrote it down on those pages.

Psychological abuse comes in the form of our living conditions. Our beds are so rusty that rust smears our sheets. The tiles on our floor are so rotted they break into pieces. Parts of the ceiling are water-damaged, sinking or completely missing. Cobwebs coat the prison, and there are thick layers of dust on the walls and windows. There are holes so big in the walls that roaches and rats can invade your space when you shower. Some toilets won’t flush, so they just get covered with garbage bags to hide the urine and feces.

Me and others have suffered from E. coli due to unsanitary kitchen practices. At one time, I weighed 250 pounds, but severe stomach cramps from eating in the kitchen have made it difficult to eat, and I’ve lost close to 120 pounds in just a few months. Since our toilets and showers aren’t clean, me and other women have contracted skin infections. We have been told that these issues have been investigated by the state, but nothing ever changes.

I’ve also witnessed deadly abuse by neglect. I’ve seen three women die from untreated heart complications, lack of dialysis care and untreated throat cancer. One woman, locked in solitary confinement, complained of stomach pains while beating on her cell door for hours. She pleaded for corrections officers to not let her die in solitary. She died that night.

It’s quite possible that I will not only have to endure living in these horrendous conditions, but also die because of them.

No way home

I wasn’t sentenced to die in prison. And yet the thought of dying while incarcerated has consumed me at times. When I first came to prison, I would replay what I thought it might be like to take my last breath behind bars. Now, after more than 20 years of incarceration, I’ve seen this play out enough to believe my life will end here.

I almost died in Tutwiler a decade ago. In 2013, I developed fibroids, and one of the fibroids attached to my uterine wall. For 10 months, this caused heavy menstrual bleeding. A prison doctor here gave me a pack of diapers and sent me back to the dorm. Back then, the nurses would let me sit in a pool of my blood for hours.

Eventually, my heart started lurching and I couldn’t walk. I didn’t know at the time that I was losing so much blood that I was nearing heart failure. I was sent to an outside hospital, where hospital staff told me I would not have lived one more day without treatment.

I had a blood transfusion, then an emergency hysterectomy. Hospital staff told me that the prison doctor had given me the wrong medication, and that it could have caused deadly blood clots in my legs. If it had not been for outside help, my life might have ended behind bars.

If I do die inside prison, it will only come after I have been stripped of my humanity. The same goes for many more women who thought their abuse was over only to find more in prison. We came to prison with wounded spirits. Incarceration shattered them.

I’ve served more than six years during this incarceration and have roughly another eight to go before I can be considered for parole. But I’m unlikely to gain my freedom early — almost no one does in Alabama.

Back in 2017, Alabama granted parole to 54% of people eligible, according to reporting from The Alabama Reflector. That same year, the parole board granted parole to a man named Jimmy Lee Spencer. A year later, he killed two women and a 7-year-old child. Spencer has since been sentenced to death, but the state has used his crimes to turn the parole board into a tool of permanent punishment.

Last year, the parole rate had plummeted to 8%, according to state statistics. The lack of parole has sucked almost all hope out of Alabama prisons. The board has become so tough that earlier this year it mistakenly denied parole to a man who was already dead.

Good stories, unhappy endings

Against this system, it’s likely I will be forced to serve my entire 25-year sentence. I can expect release in my early 70s if that’s the case. But there’s no guarantee I will make it that long.

People in my prison have been banished from society because of decisions made in youth, terror, survival, addiction and other forms of severe duress. Should we let them die inside prison even though they might be vastly different people now?

These are mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters, nurses and teachers. Some are glorious stories of motivation. But unless necessary changes happen, their stories will end here. We may have committed crimes, but now we are victims of the crime of incarceration.

Consider Ms. Annie. She was once a thriving, beautiful Black lady who walked Tutwiler’s halls encouraging and mentoring all the “young bloods” that would listen to her. “Live your best life,” she would say. Now, she sits humped over in her chair, too old and too tired to use her voice. Should she really still be here?

And take Ms. Betty, who has lived in Tutwiler so long that she now has dementia and lives in the prison's medical dorm, emaciated and unable to leave her bed. Should she really still be here?

Think, too, of all the women serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole because they passed on plea deals and took their cases to trial. They believed in their innocence, and they were punished for it. They did not know that if they were found guilty, they would not be offered any other sentence than death by incarceration.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Charla Johnson is a writer incarcerated in Alabama.