JDI IN THE NEWS - 2005

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, ‘Sex slave’ may return to the prison he sued, Washington Blade, November 4, 2005.

An arrest warrant was issued Wednesday for Roderick Keith Johnson, a former Texas gay inmate who claims he was bought and sold as a sex slave, after he failed to show up at a summons hearing, according to Mike Viesca, a spokesperson with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Law enforcement is searching for Johnson, he said.

Once Johnson is arrested, he will stay in the county jail while awaiting his parole revocation hearing, according to Viesca.

Johnson told the Blade in a telephone interview last week that if he has to return to prison, it would be like going into a jungle.

Officials said Johnson failed several drug tests, a violation of his parole, which could result in drug treatment, continued supervision or having his parole revoked, according to his attorney, Jeff Monks of the ACLU National Prison Project.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Johnson failed a drug test five times. When asked if Johnson would be placed in safekeeping if he is sent back to prison, Viesca said by e-mail: “It’s up to the parole board to determine what kind of sanctions Johnson might face and, if so, for how long. Right now, it would be premature to discuss where Johnson might end up if he were sent back to the prison system.”

Johnson claims he was sold from inmate to inmate as a sex slave and raped almost every day from September 2000 to April 2002 at the James V. Allred Prison Unit. He filed a federal lawsuit against six prison officials who he claims ignored his pleas for help and ridiculed him for being gay. Last month, a jury found all six prison officials not liable.

The TDCJ has maintained that Johnson is a liar and that officials did nothing wrong.

“[The] jury verdict dealt with one individual’s allegations. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice recognizes that inmate sexual assault is a serious problem facing all correctional systems, and the agency remains committed to a zero tolerance policy,” Brad Livingston, TDCJ’s executive director said in a statement after the trial ended.

‘Ridiculed,’ not believed

But Johnson’s attorney noted the prison transferred Johnson to safekeeping once the ACLU intervened. The TDCJ spokesperson did not respond to inquiries about why Johnson was transferred once the ACLU became involved.

“The fact that they made the transfer so quickly shows they knew exactly what the problem was,” Monks said.

Johnson said that the officials’ claims are baseless and illogical.

“Complaints are very rare,” he said. “You have to sneak behind attackers’ backs in order to report this to authorities. By the time you get to authorities, they may not believe what you say. There are so many barriers you have to go through. It’s like climbing a mountain. There’s also bias from prison officials [against gay inmates.]”

Johnson said he was ridiculed after he complained to officials.

“I wasn’t believed. I was supposed to be a manipulator and trying to get close to lovers,” he said.

Johnson said violence is a normal part of life for gay inmates at Allred. Gangs consider gay inmates women who don’t have any rights, he said. Exacerbating the problem is that the guards acquiesce to the gangs, in part because those inmates help run the prison, he added.

If gangs are beating up on vulnerable inmates, they don’t have to worry about the gangs attacking guards, Monks said.

While disappointed, Johnson said his suit went further than he expected, though it hit roadblocks from the start.

Monks said several jurors admitted that they thought homosexuality was a sin during jury selection.

“If we had kept off everyone [who believed that], I don’t think we would have had a jury,” he said.

Johnson said the verdict has exacerbated his severe depression. He has also suffered from a drug problem for years.

“My response to the verdict, I was stunned,” he said. “I just felt like the world was over for me. … Not only did those six officials not care, no one actually cared. Who do we reach out for?”

He continued: “When you’ve gone through a traumatic experience it’s tough to live day to day. Most people would commit suicide.”

While in prison, Johnson said he survived with “lots of prayer” and believing that, “My life was worth more than that.”

Johnson has been trying to help other survivors of prison rape since his release. He’s creating a project in Texas to help offenders who have been sexually assaulted reenter society once they’re released.

T.J. Parsell, 45, a gay board member at Stop Prisoner Rape, said he wasn’t surprised by Johnson’s drug problems or depression. Parsell said he battled drug and alcohol addiction after he was released from a Michigan prison, where he said he was repeatedly raped.

When Parsell was 17, he robbed a Michigan photo-mat with a toy gun of $50. He was sent to an adult prison for four and a half years.

“On my first day in general population, [inmates] spiked my drink and gang raped me,” he said. “They flipped a coin to see who would own me.”

The inmate who owned him dictated his quality of life, he said.

Parsell never complained to guards.

“Snitches are killed in prison,” he said. “My goal was to get out alive.”

While claiming the verdict in Johnson’s case is disappointing, Parsell said he hopes the trial will show that officials can be held accountable in the courtroom, as well as in the local and national media, which covered the case extensively.

“It opens up the risk and vulnerability of the state and corrections officials when someone comes forward,” he said. “If one comes forward it gives others the courage to do the same.”

Johnson agrees that his suit has helped to put gay prisoners’ rights in the newspapers and on gay rights groups’ radar.

“Just like we’re rallying around gay marriage,” he said, “I think this is one of those things we have to throw into the struggle.”