Sarah Etter, Inmate's Rape Case Fails, But Silver Lining Found, Corrections.com, October 24, 2005.
Earlier this month, Keith Roderick Johnson sat before a federal jury detailing the sexual abuse and sexual slavery he allegedly suffered behind bars in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Iowa Park Allred Unit - abuse which Johnson claims occurred while corrections officers ignored his repeated pleas for help.
But this week, the jury rejected Johnson's claims in Johnson v. Johnson, with the majority of the jurors citing that his testimony was inconsistent. And, although Johnson did not prevail, his attorneys and others are gratified that his case brought attention to the issue of prisoner rape.
"I think the most important repercussion of this case is that it really had good media coverage, in Texas and throughout the country," says Kathy Hall-Martinez, the Executive Director of Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR). "In spite of the negative verdict, and the horrifying set of facts, I think this case shined a light on what happens in prisons - and what happened to Mr. Johnson. This inmate really did go through hell. The fact that he had the courage to go through this trial is quite incredible."
Johnson, who was serving a sentence for a 2000 burglary, filed suit against six corrections officers and the prison warden, all of whom worked at the Allred Unit during 18 months of the alleged sexual assault. According to Johnson, prison officials not only ignored his pleas for a transfer to a safer unit, but also mocked him because he was a homosexual.
According to Johnson's testimony, he was known throughout the prison - to both officers and inmates - as "Coco," a nickname given to him by the gang members that "owned" him. Johnson claimed he was forced to engage in prison fights or endure sexual abuse daily. He made repeated attempts to file for a transfer to safekeeping, and had requested placement in safekeeping since the day he arrived at the facility. In Texas, inmates are often sent to safekeeping units if they are likely to be abused in the general population.
Defense attorneys from the Texas Attorney General's Office based the state's case on Johnson's conflicting testimonies, a lack of physical evidence, and the claim that Johnson only wanted to be transferred in order to be closer to his lover. Meanwhile, Johnson's lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) maintained that Johnson made repeated appeals to corrections officials for transfer due to repeated sexual assault, alleging that Johnson was sold as a "sex slave" among the Bloods, Crips and Mexican Mafia gang members in the facility.
A Challenging Jury Pool
According to Kara Gotsch, Public Policy Coordinator for the ACLU's National Prison Project, the jury venue had a huge impact on the verdict.
"Keep in mind, we're in Wichita Falls, Texas," Gotsch says. "This was a challenging jury pool - and we knew that. Everyone knows someone that works in that prison or used to work in that prison. I mean, we're talking about a relatively small community where the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is a big employer - when that is your jury pool, you have an extra challenge to overcome because of that natural favoritism."
According to local news reports, jurors questioned Johnson's physical evidence, and believed the state's claims that Johnson was still using cocaine. For Hall-Martinez, this case simply outlines the stigma that surrounds prison rape as a whole - and that stigma affected the jury greatly.
"If we think back to more 'garden variety' rape trials more than 20 years ago, it was often the case that women were not ruled in favor of - many times, a woman had her 'dishonorable lifestyle' put on trial rather than the actual rape," Hall-Martinez says. "Unfortunately, in Mr. Johnson's case, it was the same type of thing. Many people believe that inmates don't deserve basic rights because they have committed illegal acts - it's a case of these certain perceptions many people have about inmates."
Hall-Martinez adds that following the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, each state is required to take action against sexual abuse. She states that while it's easy to try and keep the issue of prison rape "under the table" it's no longer acceptable to do so by law.
"Zero-Tolerance" and the Reality of the Verdict
According to Hall-Martinez, widely known studies show that one in five men are victims of sexual assault while in prison - and a way to address the problem is to increase training for correctional officers, and teach them how to become more sensitive to the needs of prisoners.
Following the return of the verdict, the defendants stated that Texas officers have always "carefully and thoroughly" applied corrections policies in regard to sexual abuse within state prisons.
According to Mike Viesca, Director of Communications for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the Texas prison system has a zero-tolerance policy regarding prison rape, and that if an inmate reports a sexual assault it is standard procedure that they are interviewed and medically examined.
"[The] jury's verdict dealt with one individual's allegations. The Department of Criminal Justice recognizes that inmate sexual assault is a serious problem facing all correctional systems," said Brad Livingston, Executive Director of the TJDC, in a statement. "I want to commend the thousands of men and women who strive to keep our facilities safe and secure for offenders, their fellow co-workers, and ultimately the general public."
While the state maintains that the correctional officers are doing an excellent job of maintaining safety, Hall-Martinez has doubts about the repercussions of prison rape after the victims are released.
"To put this into context, my utilitarian point is that these people return to society for the most part," says Hall-Martinez. "Most of these people are in prison for a relatively short period of time. When they go through this sort of trauma and violence, they struggle the rest of their lives to become productive citizens again. It really destroys the opportunity - these people will not re-enter society as model citizens after enduring this kind of abuse."
For Johnson, who has been on parole since 2003, the experiences he had while incarcerated will always stay with him and have inspired him to become an inmate rights advocate to educate people about the problem.
"I am disappointed by the jury's decision yesterday to find in favor of the six officials who failed to protect me from continued sexual abuse while I was confined at the Allred Unit," Johnson said in a statement. "However, I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to tell the world what happened to me. Even though I didn't win my case in court, I know the case has accomplished a great deal. Prison rape is a huge problem. This process has opened some eyes to the violence that takes place everyday, and I hope it will encourage others to get involved in doing something about it."