JDI IN THE NEWS - 2005

Dianne Solis, Suit underscores state's prison rape problem, The Dallas Morning News, October 16, 2005.

WICHITA FALLS - In the Allred state prison near this ranching and oil town, Roderick Keith Johnson says he was bought and sold for sex by prison gangs with names like Gangster Disciples, Mandingo Warriors and the Mexican Mafia. But his biggest tormentor was a man named Monster, who called him Coco and was his pimp.

"Monster was the guy who was controlling me," said Mr. Johnson, a 37-year-old, gay former inmate of the James V. Allred prison unit. In a quiet voice before the jury hearing his federal civil rights lawsuit, Mr. Johnson detailed his 18-month sexual hell. There were, Mr. Johnson says, near-daily rapes, a forced shower sex show with a mentally retarded inmate, and a prison guard who called him a "commissary ho."

Mr. Johnson's allegations - he is suing six Allred prison authorities and staff members, alleging they ignored his repeated pleas for help - cast light on what prison experts say is a serious problem among Texas' 156,000 inmates: the rise of warring prison gangs who use rape, sexual intimidation and assault to establish control and hierarchy among inmates.

Mr. Johnson's attorneys call it a system of "gang-run sexual slavery," and they say that prison authorities are aware of the sexual abuse going on within their institutions.

The prison's attorneys argue that Mr. Johnson willingly engaged in sex and that his credibility is poor. A spokesman for the Texas Criminal Justice Department, Mike Viesca, said that the prison officials whom Mr. Johnson has sued did all they could "to accommodate" Mr. Johnson's requests for safety.

"The agency itself is not on trial here," Mr. Viesca said.

But others disagree. In the 1999 training manual of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the agency acknowledged that, on average, "three out of 10 newly admitted offenders will be forcibly raped within 48 hours."

"Inmates should not have to face the choice of putting out or being beaten up," says Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch, which produced a large report on prison rape in 2001. "If this were the only case in Texas, you could say, 'Oh, it seems extreme.' But Texas has been notorious for sexual violence."

Closing arguments in the lawsuit are expected today, and the jury could return a verdict early this week. Mr. Johnson, who is represented by lawyers from the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, is asking for unspecified monetary damages.

Mr. Johnson ended up in the Allred prison in 2000 for relatively minor offenses - a burglary, drug possession and passing a bad check. Nearly 4,000 men are housed in the maximum-security Allred facility, one of the state's toughest, which sits on 320 acres of mesquite-studded prairie next to a stock-car track.

Mr. Johnson was released in December 2003 and now lives in Marshall, Texas, with his 79-year-old grandmother, Dorothy Epps, who raised him and has sat in on parts of the trial.

'They knew'

The testimony often has been graphic and disturbing.

One inmate, testifying in shackles, described Mr. Johnson as "property" made to do "anything we asked." Another inmate testified, "I sold Mr. Johnson to other inmates."

Jeff Monks, an ACLU attorney, asked, "And was there any indication that prison staff knew what was happening to Mr. Johnson?"

Responded the inmate, "They knew."

Mr. Johnson's case hinges on a 1994 Supreme Court ruling that prison officials can be held liable for damages under the Eighth Amendment - which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment - if they are found to have acted with "deliberate indifference" to an inmate's health and safety and knew that the inmate faced a substantial risk of harm.

Much of the trial has focused on Mr. Johnson's repeated requests for protective custody. Defense attorneys have pointed out that Mr. Johnson wore makeup to one meeting with prison officials, suggesting that he had willingly adapted to his role as a sexual subservient to other inmates. The attorneys repeatedly asked him why he hadn't washed off the makeup before the meeting.

Mr. Johnson said he wore makeup as a "catch out" - an infraction that he hoped would get him transferred to a safekeeping area for prisoners considered vulnerable to attack.

Attorneys for the prison officials also introduced affectionate letters Mr. Johnson wrote to fellow inmates. The defense attorneys noted that Mr. Johnson signed one letter "love, your wife, Coco." Mr. Johnson said he wrote the letters hoping to secure protection from the attacks of other prisoners.

An investigation by the state prison system's inspector general concluded Mr. Johnson's allegations were unfounded; last year, a Wichita Falls grand jury declined to criminally indict any of the inmates accused of attacking him.

Mr. Johnson's attorneys call the state's report a "whitewash" and say the grand jurors clearly weren't interested in the facts of the case since Mr. Johnson was never asked to testify before them.

Inmates' testimony

Some inmates who have testified in Mr. Johnson's case say they've been threatened as "snitches" by guards and other inmates. U.S. District Court Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn has closed the courtroom during certain portions of the trial in an effort to keep secret some inmates' identities.

In one redacted court document, an inmate said two black gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, and the Latino gang Raza Unida had placed a "hit" on him because "I am crossing races, meaning that I am a white inmate helping a black inmate."

Another inmate said a prison officer told him he was on the "faggot" bus as he was being transported to Allred for the trial. Another inmate said a guard had said to him, "You stupid [expletive]. You think you can beat us? The state is unbeatable."

Prison officials say some of the inmates who complained have been transferred to other facilities for their safety.

National taboo

National experts say it's difficult to get accurate statistics on prison rape, in part, because so much of it goes unreported. Inmates simply don't want retaliation by gangs or perpetrators, or are too ashamed to report an attack.

The subject of prison rape historically has been taboo, but in recent years prisoner advocates have stepped up campaigns to bring more attention to the problem. After Mr. Johnson filed his suit, which has received widespread media coverage, the state Legislature passed a law in 2003 that provides for better training of guards and other measures to reduce prison rape.

Later that year, President George W. Bush signed into law the Prison Rape Prevention Act, which requires prison authorities to collect data on such rapes. It also established a national prison rape reduction commission and grants aimed at investigating rapes and punishing perpetrators. The legislation noted that "at least 13 percent" of U.S. inmates have been sexually assaulted in prisons.

The training manual of the Texas state prison system, introduced at Mr. Johnson's trial, says that the level of sexual violence in Texas prisons is twice as high. "Sexual assaults are always violent," the manual says. "They never involve consenting adults because many victims engage in this activity out of fear and as means to survive within the institution."

Prison politics

Conquest and control are often the motivations for a rape, and offenders feel pressured into participating in sexual attacks to attain status and membership in groups such as gangs, according to the manual.

On average, nearly two rapes are reported every day in the Texas prison system, according to the agency's statistics for fiscal year 2005. The number of alleged sexual assaults has increased more than 600 percent from 1996 through 2004. During that period, the state's prison population grew only 20 percent.

And the Allred prison had the most reports of alleged sexual assaults in 2005. In the previous three years, it was ranked second.

The rise is attributed to new zero-tolerance policies, instituted in 1999, and the creation of the inspector general's office, which investigates inmate claims of sexual assaults and other crimes, said Michelle Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Even so, a national advocacy group based in Los Angeles, Stop Prison Rape, says that one-fourth of their inmate complaints come from Texas prisons.

Female prisoners also are raped, though experts believe the problem isn't as extensive as in male prisons. One woman, a former inmate in a Texas prison who asked for anonymity, said male guards harass women into giving sexual favors. The guards often offer perfume and other gifts.

Health problems

Mr. Johnson testified that doctors have diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress and a bipolar condition and prescribed medications he must take every day. He says that he has recurring nightmares.

The prolonged sexual abuse and the prison's refusal to protect him left him "defeated," he said, in a near-whisper, as jurors and spectators strained to hear him.

Shortly before his trial began, his parole officer testified, drug testing found cocaine in his system. Mr. Johnson is regularly tested for substance abuse as a condition of his prison release. He admits to substance abuse problems since his teens.

During some of the most graphic testimony, Mrs. Epps, his grandmother, bowed her head and clasped her large hands together, as though in prayer. Other times, she simply took her oak cane and left the courtroom.

"I pray all the time, or else I couldn't make it," she said during a break in the proceedings. As for her grandson, whom she still dotes on with specialties like pig's feet and peach cobbler, she said he must construct "a better life."

And then, drawing a long breath, Mrs. Epps said, "I am an old lady now. I won't be around much more. He must keep the faith and do on to others as he wants them to do to him."