JDI IN THE NEWS - 2002

Zachary R. Dowdy, Prison Sued in 'Sex Slave' Case; Inmate Says Gangs Used Him as 'Chattel', Newsday, April 30, 2002.

A Texas prisoner who says he was raped hundreds of times and forced to become a "sex slave" for vicious prison gangs is suing his jailers, saying correction officials winked and nodded as violent prisoners preyed on him over an 18-month period.

Roderick Johnson, 33, has filed a lawsuit alleging six gangs in the James V. Allred Unit in Iowa Park, Texas forced him to perform sex acts for gang members and rented him to other prisoners, who paid between $5 and $10 per act, or "sold" him outright from one group to another. The transactions were allegedly enforced with the threat of death.

Texas prison officials say the charges are unsubstantiated. "Gang members routinely bought and sold Mr. Johnson as a chattel, raped and degraded him on a virtually daily basis, and threatened him with death if he resisted," said the lawsuit filed last week in federal court in Texas by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Johnson seeks a declaration that prison officials violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, an injunction that keeps him in safekeeping, psychiatric treatment and financial damages.

He could not be reached for comment.

Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project in Washington, said brutal sexual assaults are so common as to be "systemic" in American prisons, and in Texas prisons in particular.

The problem has gotten the attention of Congress, where a bill, the Wolf-Scott Prison Rape Reform Act, proposes guidelines for quantifying, preventing and responding to prison rape. Observers said the bill will enjoy bipartisan support when it is introduced in the next few weeks.

"It's a system of slavery, literally slavery," Winter said, referring to predatory inmates turning others into prostitutes. "A property ownership is asserted and these slaves are bought and sold."

But Larry Todd, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said that the prison system's inspector general had launched an investigation into Johnson's complaints about two weeks before the lawsuit was filed.

"It's nearly completed," Todd said of the inquiry. "And none of the allegations have been sustained so far."

He said Johnson has been incarcerated at Texas prisons at least three times, and that he is now serving a 10-year sentence for burglary and a 270-day term for cocaine possession.

Johnson, who served five years in the Navy and was discharged honorably, tried seven times to be placed into protective custody but was denied each time until he contacted the ACLU, Winter said.

In graphic detail, the lawsuit chronicles Johnson's plight from the first days of his most recent incarceration in September 2000 until earlier this month, when he was transferred into protective custody. The trouble began soon after he revealed during the intake process that he is homosexual, the lawsuit said.

It says he was discriminated against because he is gay and black, saying that prison officials believed black people are tough and should be able to fend for themselves and that the officials had deep disdain for nonaggressive gay males.

What followed was a stream of beatings and sexual assaults - in showers, cells and hallways and by individuals and packs - that continued apace despite Johnson's pleas for safety, Winter said.

In fact, the lawsuit alleges that prison officials laughed at Johnson and told him to toughen up and fight his own battles. Some said they believe he enjoyed the assaults he was experiencing.

Few inmates were disciplined for attacking Johnson, and no officers or administrators have ever been sanctioned for ignoring his cries for help, Winter said.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a federal court order last year that mandates Texas prison officials adhere to their own rules and procedures for housing inmates. The order also condemned Texas corrections officials for fostering or tolerating a culture of violence in one of the nation's largest state prison systems.

"The court found that prisoners are routinely subjected to violence, extortion and rape, that officers are aware of the victimization and fail to respond, and that an institutional resistance to resolving serious safety problems pervades the system," read the order stemming from another lawsuit.

Winter cited a 2001 study by Human Rights Watch, which monitors human rights abuses, that identified Texas as the state with the highest number of reported alleged inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults, with 237 in 1999.

The report, "No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons," said Texas, with a prison population of ',574, has one allegation of sexual assault for every 618 prisoners.

It also said that homosexuals are among the key targets of prison rapists. Men perceived as physically weak, fearful, effeminate or non-aggressive are quickly singled out for assault, often within 48 hours of their incarceration.

"The Johnson case evidences a chilling and extremely serious problem in Texas prisons," said Joanne Mariner, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Americas Division and author of the report. "It's a horrifying and terribly dramatic case - and it's not all that rare. The guards are completely indifferent to their plight."

Mariner said figures supplied by state officials drastically understate the problem, citing independent studies that place the incidence rate of sexual assault in prisons nationally at about 1 in every 5 prisoners, with 1 in 10 of those prisoners being raped.

"I think [Johnson's case] is an example of how this extreme level of injustice can happen," said Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, a Los Angeles advocacy group. The organization has launched a campaign to have discontinued 7-Up commercials that it says make light of rape in prison.

"The challenge is not to convince people that rapes are happening in prison," she said. "The challenge we have is humanizing it. Rape just isn't funny. It destroys people's lives."