Discuss as:

'Frequent and severe' sexual violence alleged at women's prison in Alabama

Alabama Dept. of Corrections

Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama is facing complaints of sexual misconduct by guards.

Sexual misconduct by male correctional staff toward inmates at Alabama's Tutwiler Prison for Women is "commonplace" and has resulted in numerous women becoming pregnant while incarcerated, a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice alleges.

Equal Justice Initiative, a private nonprofit organization, filed the complaint about the all-female prison in Wetumpka, Ala., Tuesday after receiving dozens of claims of sexual misconduct involving male staff between 2004 and 2011.

In interviews with more than 50 women incarcerated at the prison, EJI said it discovered "frequent and severe officer-on-inmate sexual violence," ranging from women being coerced into performing sexual favors in exchange for contraband goods to rape by a male correctional staff member while another male officer served as a lookout.

Even in instances in which abuse was confirmed, perpetrators received little more than a slap on the wrist, EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson told msnbc.com.

"In the last two years, the person who received the harshest sentence was a man who got six months in jail," Stevenson said. "This was for a woman who was raped and became pregnant. The baby was born, and DNA confirmed it was his."

Had the rape occurred outside prison confines, the sentence could have been 50 years to life in prison, he said.

"It actually makes you think you can do this with impunity," he said.

Instead of punishing the staff committing the offenses, Tutwiler punished the women when they tried to report the incidents, Stevenson said. Anyone who reported sexual abuse at Tutwiler was called a liar by the warden and routinely placed in segregated cells with privileges revoked.

Tutwiler Prison Warden Frank Albright did not return a phone call from msnbc.com on Wednesday, but the Alabama Department of Corrections said it has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual offenses.

“This is a matter of grave concern to me,” Alabama Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said in a press release. “From the beginning of my watch, I have made it very clear to my staff that custodial sexual misconduct will not be tolerated and is an especially egregious offense to me. We take every action possible to prevent it from happening and if it does, we undertake prompt corrective employee discipline and pursue criminal prosecution where applicable.”

But according to EJI's investigation, the Alabama Department of Corrections has been under-reporting data on sexual misconduct. None has been provided since September 2010, despite at least four Tutwiler employees being indicted on charges of abuse during 2011, according to court records.

Report: Nearly 10 percent of inmates suffer sexual abuse

The Department of Justice did not respond to msnbc.com's questions about how they are handling the complaint.

It's not clear from the EJI's investigation how many claims of sexual harrassment the group has received from the prison, which has a capacity of 956 inmates.

Just last week, the Justice Department published a report on sexual abuse in state prisons, local jails, and post-release treatment facilities across the country. Nearly one in 10 prisoners suffers sexual abuse while incarcerated, the report said.

In 2007, a Justice Department report ranked Tutwiler as the women's prison with the most sexual assaults, and 11th among all the prisons studied.

Even after the 2007 federal report, Tutwiler policies on sexual miscconduct continued to be lax, Stevenson alleged.

"Male guards shouldn't be going into the showers and exploiting the vulnerability of women when they're naked and exposed," Stevenson said. "Many states have regulations that restrict these kind of breaches. They haven't done that at Tutwiler." 

In fact, Stephenson thinks sexual assault is even more widespread at the prison than his group has found.

"We think there are a lot more people who have information that they want to share that didn't feel comfortable doing that," he said. "I'm hoping the public exposure and scrutiny will make people feel comfortable to step forward."

Since filing the complaint, EJI has heard from many women who alleged abuse.

"We've gotten some calls this morning from women who seemed so grateful and relieved that finally, some light has been shed on this."

More content from msnbc.com and NBC News:

Follow US News on msnbc.com on Twitter and Facebook