JDI IN THE NEWS - 2005

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, Gay man sues over Texas prison rapes, Washington Blade, October 7, 2005.

Former Texas prison inmate Roderick Johnson's letters to prison officials sound like the frantic pleas of a drowning man.

"Please lock me up. Please move me from this madness," one letter read. "Do I have to end up dead or hurt to get you to see that I am in danger and constant fear?"

Johnson, who is gay, alleges he was repeatedly raped by other inmates and is suing six prison officials who he claims ignored his pleas for help. He also claims the officials ridiculed him for being gay. The ACLU is representing him in the case.

Before going to Texas' Allred Prison, Johnson was housed in safekeeping at Huntsville, according to the ACLU's complaint. A State Classification Unit member told Johnson he would stay in safekeeping once he was moved to Allred, the suit maintains. Johnson, a non-violent offender, was convicted of burglary.

However, once at Allred, any protection he had disappeared, he has claimed. Johnson was sold from inmate to inmate as a sex slave and raped almost every day from September 2000 to April 2002, he has said in court testimony.

One witness, who said Johnson was his gang's "property," testified that a rape cost $4 to $7, the New York Times reported. Johnson didn't receive any of the money.

Johnson's cellmate testified that he saw Johnson raped several times and another testified that the guards knew but ignored the assaults, according to media reports.

Each time Johnson went to the Unit Classification Committee to ask to be moved the officials told him, according to the ACLU, to "fight or fuck." Some of the defendants referred to Johnson as " Coco," the female name given to Johnson by the gangs and referred to him as "she" and "her," the suit claims.

Prison officials told Johnson that because he is black he should be able to physically defend himself, Gotsch said.

Richard Wathen, assistant warden at Allred, told Johnson, according to the suit, "There's no reason why black punks can't fight and survive in general population if they don't want to fuck."

Another inmate once forced Johnson to wear make-up to attend a UCC hearing, according to the complaint filed by the ACLU. When Johnson arrived, two UCC members reportedly called him a "ho" and a "dirty tramp," the report states. One UCC member said, "Ms. Pretty is going to a good place now."

Johnson was later transferred to the most gang-addled building at Allred.

Officials deny charges

Prison officials have said that Johnson's claims were investigated but never unsubstantiated and they deny ridiculing him for being gay.

"There was a lack of credibility by the claims that were made," said Mike Viesca, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "The UCC based its decision on investigations - they thought there was not enough substantiation."

When asked why Johnson was moved after the ACLU intervened in April 2002, Viesca didn't respond.

Officials claim that Johnson wanted to be transferred to safekeeping to be close to a lover and is manipulating the system. However, ACLU spokesperson Kara Gotsch pointed out that Johnson asked to be moved anywhere - even to solitary confinement.

Also, she added, the person officials are referring to as Johnson's lover was not at Allred until August 2001. Johnson's complaints started soon after he arrived at the prison, in September 2000.

Johnson also wrote love letters to his alleged rapists and "falsified documents," according to the defendants.

Gotsch said Johnson has admitted to forging a letter from his grandmother, who did not know he was gay at the time. He thought that if the prison received a complaint from someone on the outside, officials might intervene, she explained.

Details on the alleged love letters were unavailable by press time.

Johnson's complaint and the officials' abusive actions are not an aberration, prisoner rights' advocates say. In fact, Human Rights Watch found in its report on male inmate rape, that sexual slavery was "commonplace" in some of Texas' harshest prisons.

A federal judge ruled in 1999 that Texas prisons were overrun with "a culture of sadistic and malicious violence."

'Rape capital'

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Texas prisons have the highest number of allegations of inmate on inmate sexual assault in the country. In 2004 there were 550 - 13 were found to be substantiated. The next highest state, Ohio, had 86 allegations. The numbers for all states are likely much higher as these are only the reported assaults.

"The fact that we have that type of statistic is actually positive," Viesca said. "People feel comfortable enough that they can report. The fact that people are able to make reports is encouraging. There is no fear of retaliation."

In a written statement he added, "There were several claims that inmate witnesses were harmed during their stay at the Allred Unit as they prepared to testify. These claims were not true."

However the fear of retaliation in Johnson's case is so strong that the judge ordered reporters not to publish the names of witnesses who are inmates. Johnson's former cellmate said he was stabbed before he was to testify, according to news reports.

Kathy Hall-Martinez, interim executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, said that over the last four years her organization has received 458 letters from inmates who have been raped. Out of those, 101 are from Texas. Just 49 of those victims reported it.

Ninety-one of the victims were male and two were transgender, she said. Twenty-one identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

"We believe Texas is the rape capital of the country," Gotsch said.