SURVIVOR TESTIMONY

National Prison Rape Elimination Commission
Testimony of Garrett Cunningham

Washington, D.C., June 14, 2005

Good morning, my name is Garrett Cunningham, and as a former prisoner of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice I have firsthand experience with the violence and abuse that takes place within America’s prisons. 

In 2000, I was housed at the Luther Unit in Navasota, Texas.  While at the Luther Unit, I worked in the prison’s laundry under the supervision of corrections officer Michael Chaney.  After just a few weeks of working with Officer Chaney, he began to touch me in a sexual manner during pat searches.  At first, I thought it was accidental, but since it continued every day, I soon realized his inappropriate touching was intentional.  He also stared at me when I showered and made sexual comments.

I was afraid to tell anyone about my problems with Officer Chaney, but in March 2000, I finally went to the unit’s psychologist and told him about the touching and crude comments. He advised me to stay away from Officer Chaney.

The prison psychologist’s advice did nothing to prevent the sexual harassment, so a month later I decided to go to the prison’s administration for help.  I approached the assistant warden and his second-in-command officer and told them about Chaney’s sexual comments and sexual touching during pat searches. They told me that I was exaggerating and that Chaney was just doing his job. 

I eventually confronted Chaney and told him to stop touching me.  He only got angry and continued to harass me.  I tried again to get help from prison administrators but I was told to keep my mouth shut. 

Officer Chaney eventually raped me in September 2000.  On that day, I had just finished my job at the prison’s laundry and began walking to the back of the room to take a shower.  Suddenly, Chaney shoved me, knocking me off balance.  I screamed and struggled to get him off me, but he was too big.  Officer Chaney weighed about 300 pounds.  I am 5 feet 6 inches tall and weigh 145 pounds.

While I struggled, Chaney handcuffed me.  He then pulled down my boxers and forcefully penetrated me.  When I screamed from the terrible pain, Chaney told me to shut up.  I tried to get away, but I could barely move under his weight. After it was over, I was dazed.  He took me to the showers in handcuffs, turned on the water and put me under it.  I was crying under the shower and I saw blood running down my legs.  He left and came back with a liquid that stung when he poured it on my behind.      

When he took the handcuffs off me, he threatened me.  He said if I ever reported him, he would have other officers write false assault cases against me and I would be forced to serve my entire sentence, or be shipped to a rougher unit where I would be raped all the time by prison gang members.  He also warned me not to say anything to the officials I had complained to before, because they were his friends and they would always help him out.

At first, I didn’t dare tell anyone about the rape.  But, in October 2000, I was so afraid of being raped again that I told the unit’s psychologist that Chaney had raped me.  He moved me to another job with a different supervisor and told me that if anyone asked why my job was changed, I should say that I wanted “a change of scenery.”  A few days later, I was given a new position in the laundry, next door to where Chaney worked.  I continued to see him regularly and he continued to touch me inappropriately.

I wrote the Internal Affairs Department two times about Chaney’s inappropriate touching.  They never addressed my concerns and failed to take precautions to protect me.  I was too scared to file a written complaint against Chaney because I feared retaliation from prison officials.  Instead, I requested a private meeting with an Internal Affairs investigator.  I received no response to my request, and Chaney was never punished for assaulting me.

Officer Chaney went on to sexually harass and assault other prisoners.  One year later, Nathan Essary began working under Chaney’s supervision in the same laundry where I had previously been assigned.  On several occasions, Nathan was forced to perform sex acts on Chaney.  Fortunately for Nathan, he was able to collect Chaney’s semen during two of the attacks and DNA testing positively linked the samples to Chaney.  Chaney finally resigned from the Luther Unit in January 2002 when he was indicted for his crimes against Nathan Essary.  Last month, he pleaded guilty to sexual contact with an incarcerated person.  He will serve no time in prison. 

For me, there is no justice.  While I was in prison, the fear of retaliation by staff or other prisoners haunted me and prevented me from reporting the rape right away.  My fear led me to attempt suicide just to escape the pain of my situation.  Because my previous complaints to prison officials resulted in sharp rebukes, and the prison psychologist’s assistance was limited, I felt hopeless.  I believe that openly pursuing my charges against Chaney would have led to retaliation from staff.  They could write disciplinary cases to keep me in prison for years beyond my expected release date.  They could ship me to a rougher unit where I would be guaranteed to face additional abuse.

Now, I feel like, as a man, it has taken a lot away from me.  A lot.  I try not to think about it, but I constantly do.  When I see a guy at work that looks like him, I begin to have images of what happened to me.  I feel angry that he was not truly held accountable for his actions, even after all the evidence against him came out. 

Many men and women in Texas experience sexual abuse at the hands of officers and other prisoners, but their pleas for help go unanswered by administrators and staff.  It seems that officials take action to protect a prisoner only when the victim has physical evidence, such as a semen sample.  Individuals without this kind of proof are left to fend for themselves.  Prisoners who file a complaint encounter a complicated grievance system that few prisoners can navigate, but you are shut out of court forever if you cannot figure out how to get your grievance properly filed within a few days of the rape.  Furthermore, victims of rape are usually too upset to figure out what they have to do to file a lawsuit. They are not thinking about lawsuits, they are thinking about how to get protection, since prison officials do not want to listen to them.  These factors result in very low rates of reporting among prisoners, which lead to the inaccurate perception among prison administrators that there is very little rape in their prisons. 

The reality is that rape is widespread and prison rape victims feel hopeless because of officials’ failure to prevent additional attacks despite complaints.  Now that I am out of prison, I have not forgotten the people still behind bars.  I speak out about my experience at the Luther Unit whenever I have an opportunity, and I have my own organization to help prisoners.  With the postage stamps that prisoners send to me, I provide up-to-date and accurate resource information to prisoners throughout the country who are looking for legal help, books, pen pals and aftercare services.  The people I correspond with are always so grateful for the assistance.

My hope is that this commission will hear the pleas for protection from the abused and violated in America’s prisons and expose the widespread nature of violence.  Your scrutiny, along with the attention of the media, is crucial to exposing the violence behind bars and preventing additional abuse.

I thank you for your time and attention and look forward to your questions.

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