Mike Ward, Inmate's case raises profile of rapes, The Austin American-Statesman, October 24, 2005.

Seven times in 18 months he pleaded for official help, insisting that his life was in danger. Forty-eight times he reported being sexually assaulted.

For nearly three years in a Texas prison, convicted burglar Roderick Johnson insists, he was trying to save himself from a nightmarish hell where he was bought and sold as a sex slave among prison gangs. Prison officials investigated and dismissed his claims, saying he was "gaming," prison slang for trying to manipulate the system to his benefit.

When a Wichita Falls federal jury last week exonerated six prison officials whom Johnson had accused of violating his civil rights, state prison officials said the verdict showed that they were right, that the system for protecting Texas convicts from rape had not failed, as Johnson had asserted. They also say a two-year-old program to curb prison rape is working well.

Prisoner advocates remain unconvinced.

In the state with the most prison rapes reported during 2004, the verdict has only intensified the debate over whether Texas does enough to protect its prisoners from sexual abuse.

"In a 'Cool Hand Luke' culture, there is an assumption that somehow he had it coming," said Kathy Hall-Martinez, interim director of the national advocacy group Stop Prison Rape, referencing the 1967 movie about a man who refuses to conform to life at a rural prison. "You can't say the Roderick Johnson case was handled well. . . . Texas prison officials simply can't shirk their authority back onto the prisoner."

Top prison officials, in their first detailed discussion of the issue since Johnson filed his lawsuit in April 2002, are just as adamant.

"We see a tremendous amount of manipulation in the penitentiary . . . and this case was about manipulation," said John Moriarty, inspector general of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "We did everything in our power to prove what Johnson was alleging. It simply did not prove out.

"The system worked."

National statistics indicate that something's afoot in Texas.

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that Texas logged 550 reports of an inmate sexually assaulting another in 2004, nearly half of the 1,229 total reported in all prisons nationwide. Ohio reported the next highest number: 86.

With 160,703 prisoners, 21,500 more than in Texas, California reported only 23, all of which were substantiated. Texas officials say that shows other states did not report as openly as Texas did.

Of the reported Texas cases, 197 were dismissed as unfounded. Thirteen were substantiated. The rest were either still under investigation or were unsubstantiated because of lack of convincing evidence either way.

Doug Dretke, director of the prison division for the criminal justice agency, said the whopping number of reports supports Texas' official assertion that the state's Safe Prisons Program, initiated two years agoto curb violence, is succeeding. It was prompted by new state and federal laws designed to stop prison rapes.

"We have more reports because we've made this a priority - zero tolerance, when it comes to prison rape," he said.

He said employees are assigned to monitor safety conditions at each of Texas' 112 prisons, and officials now track complaints and predators and closely monitor housing assignments and repeated attacks. With a $1 million federal grant, Texas has bolstered its initiatives to curb rapes with better investigations and education programs for both staff and convicts, much of it since Johnson filed his lawsuit in April 2002.

"I want prisoners to come into our prisons and not worry about sexual assault," Dretke said. "We're dealing with a complex issue in a complex environment, and we've made a tremendous amount of progress in addressing this issue. . . . We have a very strong process."

Added Moriarty: "One of the reasons the numbers are high is that we're generating them. By putting a priority on it, more inmates are reporting. It's become part of the game."

So what's going on?

Prisoner advocates with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Johnson in his lawsuit, and other stop-rape groups express amazement at Texas' defense that the high number of reported rapes is a good sign.

"I don't think anyone but the officials in Texas look at it as a positive sign," Hall-Martinez said, noting that Texas could soon become subject to federal funding sanctions if its high numbers continue. States with the highest numbers of reported prison rapes are also likely to be called to testify before a federal commission studying the issue, officials said.

"There's something going on in Texas, but it's not good," Hall-Martinez said.

Twenty-five years ago, when Dretke was hired as a guard, convict bosses were still allowed to supervise dorms and mete out punishment. Rapes were seldom reported. Much the same was still true as recently as a decade ago, when they were officially logged in dozens, not hundreds.

"The first time we had a requirement that it had to be reported was 2000 or 2001," he said. "We now have a very detailed process, a strong, strong focus on this. We work in an environment where we have to be aware of a number of aspects, including the fact that manipulation occurs."

And a rape allegation is one way to do that, he and other officials say.

"We're dealing with people who can be very manipulative, who have been around law enforcement and the (prison) system for a while and know how to play games," Moriarty said. "They say: 'I'm going to get you' or 'I'm going to get even with you.' Sex happens in prison. What may have been consensual at the time becomes rape."

The state's lawyers raised questions about Johnson's credibility during the trial, pointing to inconsistencies in things he has said.

Even so, authorities are required to investigate every complaint. And with the high-tech tools now used by prison investigators - DNA tests, forensic exams, even special gear that can detect body fluids on clothing and bedding - officials said investigators can better ferret out who is telling the truth.

"One inmate said, 'This is (my attacker's) semen.' It turned out to be his own," Moriarty said. "Another one has reported being attacked 200 times. It didn't happen . . . and we've got a camera on him now 24/7."

Little sympathy

Then, too, is the problem that Moriarty and other authorities say they have faced in prosecuting prison sex crimes: Juries are often unsympathetic to inmates.

In one case, a young convict was raped by a member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. Officials confirmed his story with reports of broken ribs and black eyes, witnesses and forensic evidence, but a jury found the attacker not guilty of sexual assault. Because he used a knife, though, they convicted him of possession of a weapon, and he got 30 additional years in prison.

In another case a few years ago, investigators accused a parole officer of coercing sex from women convicts at a Gatesville prison. He was acquitted. In places with prison rape problems, prison rape experts say, poorly managed staff, personnel shortages, low morale and lack of training are also a problem.

"You can have the same manipulation in any system, so why are Texas' numbers so high?" asked Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a psychology professor at the University of South Dakota who is a nationally recognized expert on prison rape. She is also a member of the National Prison Rape Elimination Act Commission, a federal panel that is drawing up rules toaddress the problem.

Like advocates who have been following Johnson's case, she predicts the jury's verdict will have one positive effect: bringing attention to the issue.

"Had this happened five years ago, it would have been very ominous for the future, because every prison administrator would probably have said, 'We can beat these cases,' " Struckman-Johnson said. "Now, there is so much pressure on prisons to address the issue, they're not going to be able to do nothing. (The verdict) should not take away from what happened to (Johnson).

"Even if the jury didn't, most people believe his story."