Bruce Shenitz, Prison Sex Slave, Out Magazine, September 2004.
When Roderick Johnson was transferred to the James V. Allred Unit of the Texas prison system four years ago, nothing prepared him for what was lying in wait at the maximum security facility. Like every new arrival, he went before a Unit Classification Committee, which would determine his placement within the prison. Since he was an openly gay man, he asked to be placed in the separate "safekeeping" unit for vulnerable individuals. The committee chair's response to Johnson's request? "We don't protect punks on this farm," he said, and assigned him to the general population. Within days, Johnson was raped by another inmate. "After that he was like, the person that owned me," says Johnson. "He demanded sex when he wanted. I cleaned his cell, cooked his food. I was his personal sex toy, I guess you could say."
Johnson was in the midst of recounting a story he's had to tell many times during the past two years, ever since he brought a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for violating his rights under the Eighth Amendment (which guards against cruel and unusual punishment) and Fourteenth Amendment (which guarantees equal protection under the law). Out of prison since December of last year, Johnson recently spent several hours talking about his case with me in Austin; he chronicled 18 months of rape, sexual enslavement, physical and mental abuse-and, he alleges, indifference by the prison authorities that he cited in more than a dozen written grievances and hearings held while he was still behind bars.
As I listen to Johnson's story, I'm struck by the way his demeanor changes. As we start our conversation at an Austin hotel, he laughs easily and often, and he speaks with the energy of a man on the go with important things to accomplish. From time to time, as he describes horrors that most of us know about only from the likes of episodes of Oz, his voice weakens and slows down. When I ask how he's coping emotionally and psychologically, he laughs and says, "Well, I'm heavily sedated." He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression; he's in counseling, and he takes antidepressants and other medication for relief from the nightmares that used to disrupt his sleep.
"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons," Dostoyevsky wrote in The House of the Dead. In that case, it can hardly come as a surprise that our prison system reflects the violence of our larger society. But perhaps more revealing is the prison system's unrelenting male-on-male sexual violence-an observation that might be less than shocking since reports of torture at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison came to light. Even if Roderick Johnson were not an openly gay man, his lawsuit-and the ongoing problem of rape and sexual coercion in prison-would tell us a great deal not only about our society but also about homophobia. "Homophobia drives sexual assault in prison," says Terry Kupers, MD, a psychiatrist and a leading expert on sexual violence in prison. "Prison violence reflects the kind of everyday violence that men have become accustomed to in larger society," he writes in the introduction to Prison Masculinities, a book he coedited with Don Sabo and Willie London. "In fact, for men on the outside, prison-with its exaggerated forms of violence and insensitivity-provides a spectacle that serves to normalize the seemingly less-perverse forms of violence that are part of daily life on the outside."
The dimensions of prison rape are unknown, but they're potentially staggering. There are around 2.1 million people incarcerated in the United States, more than in any other country and the highest rate in the world. How many of these men are victims of sexual assault? Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a professor of psychology at the University of South Dakota who has studied sexual assault in 10 medium or maximum security facilities for men, concludes that "21% to 23% of the men have at least one incident of a pressured or forced sexual incident while incarcerated." In its 2001 report "No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons," Human Rights Watch estimated that 140,000 American male inmates have been anally raped.
Most experts on prison rape believe that the numbers we do have are probably all underestimates. Prisoners fear retaliation if they report another inmate; humiliation and shame are equally powerful inhibitors that stop many victims from reporting rape. In addition, says Kupers, "an awful lot of sex that is considered consensual is coerced. The prisoner knows that if he can't defend himself, he may be attacked and raped, so he hooks up with someone who's tougher for protection, and agrees to sexual acts he wouldn't otherwise agree to."
But even when a prisoner overcomes all these obstacles-both internal and external-and reports the crime, prison authorities often fail to take effective action. As prisons become more crowded, there are frequently not enough corrections officers to provide adequate security. In many cases, day-to-day prison life is under the control of inmate gangs, and officers allow the gangs a relatively free hand-even letting them commit rape and acts of sexual enslavement-so long as some sort of order is maintained. "Some in authority use rape or the threat of rape as a management tool in running their institutions," writes Alan Elsner in Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons. "Rape can also be used to punish troublemakers or pay back prisoners who have threatened a guard."
For most members of the middle class, prison is generally not even on the menu of options that come up in the course of one's life. Which may make Roderick Johnson's story particularly poignant-or horrifying-compared to, say, that of a convicted murderer.
Johnson, who turned 36 in July, grew up on a farm in Marshall, a small town in northeast Texas. "I come from a very middle-class, conservative-ultraconservative-family. Churchgoing, the whole nine yards," he says. "Deeply, deeply religious." (Johnson wears a wooden cross tucked into his shirt, and he considers himself religious.) Though his family assumed he would follow tradition and go to college, a high school friend was planning to go into the Army, and Johnson thought he'd join him-until he found out that the Army Ranger job he was considering involved getting dropped out of helicopters at 4 in the morning. After he bumped into a Navy recruiter on his way out of the Army office, he signed up at age 17 and stayed in for about four years. He picked up some college credits while stationed in San Diego-he eventually got a business degree at the University of Texas at Arlington-and moved back to Texas when his money ran out.
Back home in Marshall, he got involved with a guy who ended up committing an unarmed burglary of a neighbor's house. Afterwards, his friend came over to store the goods at Johnson's place. When I ask if he knew he was helping someone who had stolen property, he replies, "Well, I didn't exactly know that it was stolen, but I knew in the end." He laughs. "It was one of those deals where he was running, he was all frantic. You could trust that something was really strange about this situation." Johnson was convicted of burglary and received a sentence of 10 years' probation. He moved to Dallas and worked at a couple of jobs, including as a Merrill Lynch business consultant, from 1993 to 1996. As a result of some "dirty" urinalyses from marijuana (the tests were required under the terms of his probation), he was required to return to Marshall, where "the economy sucked." After failing to report for probation, he was sent to minimum security prison in north Texas for 16 months. "It was a pretty lightweight place" for first-time nonviolent offenders, he says. In that facility, being known as gay didn't present any problems.
After his release in 1998, he returned to Dallas and worked as a courier for a law firm. But his finances were "in shambles," he recalls, and he wrote a bad check for $300 at a Wal-Mart. He was sentenced to prison again on a parole violation of the original burglary charge.
Johnson spent several months at the Gurney facility, a minimum security classification unit in northeast Texas, and was then transferred to the Allred unit, near Wichita Falls. Johnson says he was immediately approached by a member of the Gangster Disciples gang, "and one of the first things he asked me was 'Who was I going to be with?' My impression was like, 'nobody.' He explained to me, 'You're in a maximum security unit. If you're a homosexual, then you're going to have to have a man." Johnson resisted the approach, but the next day a different prisoner made as if to attack him, and the first inmate jumped up to defend Johnson. "So at this point, he's demanding sex as payment," says Johnson, his voice lowered, his speech slower. "He came into my cell one night. That was the first time I'd been physically raped."
In the grimmest fantasies of prison life-the ones that lie behind the jokes about dropped bars of soap, the subtext (or surface text) of scores of movies and TV shows-prison rape occurs when a group of hardened convicts jump the new kid in the cell block, drag him off to a corner, and hold him down. That certainly happens, but to avoid repeated attacks, prisoners are also often coerced into sex that they wouldn't otherwise choose. This threat of violence, combined with competition among the "wolves" (men who identify as straight and gain sex through domination-or domination through sex) for targets, creates a kind of prison marketplace. In the phenomenon of "hooking up," says Robert Dumond, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and expert on prison rape, "I may want to trade my safety for sex with you. If you promise to keep me from being gang-raped, I will give you my individual sexuality."
In Johnson's case, this "lesser of two evils" calculation didn't help him. After about two months, he tells me, his "protector" started becoming abusive, "slapping me around, humiliating me in public." By November, Johnson was being "lent" out to other gang members for sex. During the course of his 18-month ordeal, Johnson was bought or sold between the Bloods, the Crips, the Mandingo Warriors, and the Mexican Mafia; at various times he was assigned to one person in a gang who was "in charge" of him. The gangs forced Johnson to have sex with their members and also sold his services to other inmates, usually for $5 to $10. According to an article by Daniel Brook published in Legal Affairs earlier this year, Johnson also received letters from gang members stating "that if he did not comply with their demands, the punishment would be even more severe than the rapes. One of the letters promised to 'smash your bitch ass ASAP' if Johnson resisted."
Johnson filed a series of grievances and complaints with the prison and appealed for a reclassification into safekeeping. Although he was once moved into another pod, Johnson was never put into safekeeping as he repeatedly requested. His court record, including his 300-page deposition, carbon copies of all his written complaints as well as threatening letters sent to him by other inmates, provides a catalog of forced sexual acts: He was assaulted in the shower room, stairwells, his cells, and other cells; he was forced into oral and anal sex, or men would masturbate on him. Johnson said he gradually began to become numb as a result of the continuous attacks. "After a while you just kind of lost emotions," he said. "It's like your feelings were worthlessness, guilt, shame, humiliation, embarrassment."
A different type of horror can be found in the account of Johnson's attempts to bring this situation to the attention of the prison administration. Several times, Johnson alleges, various corrections officers advised him how to cope with the situation. According to court documents, on February 14, 2001, one officer told him, "You need to get down there and fight or get you a man." A week later, an assistant warden told Johnson, "There's no reason why black punks can't fight and survive in general population if they don't want to fuck." The following month, at another hearing, a corrections officer told Johnson, "Bring bruises or stay out of my face." When another request for transfer to safekeeping was denied "due to lack of credible evidence," a different officer said, "Ms. Pretty is going to a good place now," referring to his transfer to the most heavily gang-infested building at the unit. In January 2002, during his seventh life-endangerment claim, a different officer told Johnson, "I personally believe you like dick," a comment that evoked laughter from two other officers. The same officer went on to say that Johnson should be placed on high security, where he would "get fucked all the time." According to his appellate brief, "Johnson began sobbing, screaming, and pleading," which prompted more laughter; Johnson was dragged from the room screaming for help. It took several more months of assaults and unsuccessful hearings before a fax from the American Civil Liberties Union to the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice produced a transfer to safekeeping at another unit on April 5, 2002.
In response to requests for a comment on Johnson's pending lawsuit, the Criminal Justice Department's general counsel, Carl Reynolds, states in an e-mail that "TDCJ officials did investigate Johnson's claims, and in some instances took remedial action short of placing him in safekeeping, but had great difficulty responding to Johnson's allegations because his stories kept changing, he often failed to identify the other participants, and when he did identify other inmates the information typically did not check out.. Compounding the problem, at some point after the ACLU began to represent him, Johnson began to tell unit staff that his attorneys had told him not to provide information to them so the incidents could be used against the state in the lawsuit. In addition, as the case became public, other inmates began to come forward wishing to discredit Johnson, relaying that he is highly manipulative and that he has admitted that his quest for safekeeping on the Allred unit was in order to be closer to a particular inmate." (I asked Johnson about the charge that he wanted to be in safekeeping in order to be with another inmate; he said that his grievances started long before he knew that a friend of his from another facility was in safekeeping at Allred.)
As of press time, Texas had appealed a federal district court's denial of the state's request for summary judgment and dismissal of the case. Oral arguments were presented in early July, and the fifth circuit's decision could come down at any time; if Johnson wins, the ACLU plans to proceed to trial.
Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, says Johnson's case is "one of the more severe we've heard of." While several of the experts I spoke to were not surprised that the events in the case occurred in Texas, prison expert Robert Dumond said that despite the state's "sordid history, its recent involvement has actually been very positive." Johnson himself told me that "since this lawsuit started, they've got postings everywhere on what to do if you're raped."
So what does any of this have to do with being a gay man in 2004? A great deal, according to most of the activists and experts I spoke to. "Gay people are disproportionately victimized," says Stemple. She goes on to cite a study that showed that gay men in a Philadelphia facility were four times more likely to be targeted than straight men. "The second way it's a gay issue is that the mythology of the common understanding inaccurately blames gay people for the abuse," she adds. She mentions the "homosexual predator" depicted in movies like The Shawshank Redemption, in which the main rapist is portrayed as "very strong but effeminate." Portrayals like that "can play into stereotypes that homophobic people have about gay people, that they're advancing gay sexuality on victims."
Both straight and gay advocates for prison rape victims ask why gay men-and gay groups-haven't been more vocal on the subject. "I have been somewhat surprised with the lack of outcry about this issue by gay men," says Robert Dumond. He points out that rape entered the public arena in a big way when Susan Brownmiller's book Against Our Will was published in 1975. In fact, the book contains a chapter about prison rape, focused largely on the late Stephen Donaldson (in the book he's identified under his birth name, Robert A. Martin), a gay rights and peace activist who became involved with Stop Prisoner Rape after he was raped in prison following a civil disobedience arrest in 1973.
I wondered whether the main argument of Against Our Will- that rape and the threat of rape function as a form of social control that enforces the subordination of all women-had any implications for understanding prison rape. Terry Kupers, who like Dumond is straight, thinks it does. "Prison rape supports societywide homophobia," he says. "Prison rapists, who feel very inadequate in the sense that they are powerless in the larger social context, find someone even more vulnerable and powerless who they can dominate and abuse, as if that ugly display of meanness proves that at least they are not at the very bottom of the heap. Isn't this precisely what the homophobe is doing when he castigates and brutalizes the gay man?"
T.J. Parsell looks at the issue from a less theoretical, more personal perspective. "I was pained and troubled by the absence of the gay community" from the organizing that culminated in President Bush's signing of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in September 2003. (The law will fund the first nationwide study of prison rape; while advocates welcome the act as a necessary beginning, most believe that much more will be needed to attack the problem.) Parsell, an openly gay man and prison rape survivor, suspects that "the topic of gay prisoners is not a kind of image we want to see out there a whole lot. It goes contrary to some of the achievements we're making."
But Parsell wonders if something more complicated is going on around the issue. When he speaks about prison rape, gay men often want to know "what the sex was like." Out of curiosity, he did a search on a porn site and searched for "gay prison sex fantasy" and "jail sex fantasy" and found 141 different titles. Is it possible that such imagery, familiar to us from porn, makes it harder for us to distinguish between the fantasy of "rough sex" and real-life brutality? Even those who recognize the difference may feel some reluctance to show any connection to the way that prison brutalizes the top-bottom roles-and then puts the brutality on exhibit for the rest of the world to see.
Another reason the topic is especially touchy for gay men: We are already "marked" by society as vulnerable, and for many of us there's at least a part of our past in which we were the victim. Perhaps that too makes us reluctant to identify with those who are victims in prison rape.
The issue of prison rape is one that most of the media-and the public-assiduously avoid not only because of the volatile mix of violence and sexual taboo but because it involves other issues we'd perhaps prefer to leave unexamined. For example, prison rape received a small amount of media attention after the revelations about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse. A flurry of articles noted that sexual assault occurred in American prisons, but in general the Iraqi prison has been examined as if such events only happen during wartime-and outside our own borders.
The racial dimensions of prison rape are another way in which the issue touches on other deeply held taboos. The reality is that in the limited studies of prison rape, African-Americans are often the aggressors and Caucasians are the victims. In fact, one of the issues in Johnson's appeal is whether he was denied equal protection because of the defendant's statements "that homosexuals enjoy being raped and that a black homosexual in particular should be able to fight off predators if he does not want to submit to rape." Stop Prisoner Rape's Stemple points out that while a given Caucasian man in prison may be more likely to become a rape victim, in the overall population black men are more likely to become prison rape victims because of the disproportionately large number of black men in prison. For that reason, it's perhaps particularly fitting that Roderick Johnson is African-American and openly gay.
In February the state of Texas presented a 70-page investigation of the charges to a state grand jury in Wichita Falls-which declined to indict any of the 49 men accused of assaulting Johnson. At the time, the associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project called the investigation a "sham" and said, "The claim that Roderick Johnson was engaging in consensual relationships with violent predators who were coercing him is ludicrous and is contradicted by the evidence showing his repeated appeals to prison officials and staff." A spokesman for the Texas prison system said that the grand jury decision "bolsters our belief that Johnson's lawsuit is without merit" but pointed out that the work of the investigators demonstrated the system's "policy of zero tolerance for rape in prison."
Despite such apparent setbacks, these days Roderick Johnson is a very busy man. In addition to his paying job as a youth care worker at an Austin center for homeless young people ("I kind of make sure they don't kill each other-I do a lot of counseling, spend time with them"), he's working with several groups involved in prison reform, where he often works alongside state government and law enforcement authorities. He's involved in a prison rape information project being put together by the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault-where he works with, among others, Texas first lady Anita Perry. He's the vice chairman of the discharge planning committee of the Austin Homeless Task Force, where he helps coordinate planning for clients leaving jails, prisons, mental hospitals, and other institutions. He also works with the Reentry Roundtable, a program aimed at released prisoners. Finally, he's gotten involved with Stop Prisoner Rape, where he sits on the board of advisers.
I wondered if the full schedule was calculated to give him less time to sit and brood. "I guess that's pretty much what you could say," Johnson laughs. "I hadn't planned it that way. It's just the way that it falls." Coping with the emotional damage of his time in prison is "a tough job on a daily basis," he acknowledges. "I have my days when I fall apart; I have my days that are not happy days." Despite that, much of the time, he says, "I feel gratified at the end of the day. I feel that I've accomplished something, that my day and my purpose have meaning. And that motivates and inspires me."
Reprinted from Out, September 2004. Copyright 2004 by Bruce Shenitz. All rights reserved. Used with permission.