A jury decided last week that former Texas prison inmate Roderick Johnson was not entitled to damages for spending 18 months in sexual slavery to gangs such as the Gangster Disciples, the Mandingo Warriors, and the Mexican Mafia as prison officials looked on and laughed.
The jury’s decision is a disappointment not only to Johnson but also to inmates throughout the vast Texas prison system and across the nation. The verdict in the closely watched trial sent a clear message to prisoners: Do not expect our justice system to protect your human rights.
Although discouraging, the Johnson verdict was hardly surprising. The jury was drawn from an arch-conservative, ardently pro-prison community with little tolerance for someone like Roderick Johnson, an openly gay man and admitted substance abuser who had been convicted of burglary, check forgery, and drug possession.
But it’s hard to believe that any jury could turn a blind eye to his allegations, which were substantiated by numerous prisoners at trial – namely, that he was bought, sold, and even rented out for as little as $3 by the violent gangs that rule many Texas prisons. Unlike many rape victims outside the prison context, Johnson even had witnesses other than his assailants.
His abuse is not an isolated case, especially in Texas. Although many U.S. corrections departments fail to protect their inmates from sexual abuse, the Texas prison system is by many measures the worst. At Stop Prisoner Rape, a national human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual assault in detention, nearly a quarter of the letters that we receive from survivors of prisoner rape come from Texas – from both state and federal prisons, such as the case at the Carswell federal women’s prison camp, documented in Fort Worth Weekly.
Consider these two statistics, which should horrify every Texan:
First, a report issued this year by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that of the 1,533 incidents of inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse logged last year, 609 – or nearly 40 percent – came from Texas.
And the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s own training manual, issued in 1999, warns that three out of 10 first-time prisoners will be raped within 48 hours of entering the prison system.
For many gay or transgender prisoners, life behind bars is the kind of hellish existence Johnson described – many gay prisoners are forced to assume a female identity, given feminine nicknames, forced to wear makeup, and even have the names of their attackers forcibly tattooed on their bodies.
Other prisoners may suffer the same fate. Inmates who are young, small in stature, serving their first prison sentence, or who have features that can in any way be seen as effeminate are at high risk of being victimized by violent prison predators.
One such prisoner was 17-year-old Rodney Hulin, a Texan who was sentenced to eight years in an adult prison for setting fire to a dumpster as a prank. After enduring months of beatings and rapes, Rodney hanged himself in his cell to escape his abusers. He lay in a coma for four months before he died. Although Rodney and his mother both appealed to prison officials for help, their repeated requests for protection were denied – even though Texas corrections officers obviously know well the risks faced by vulnerable inmates.
But why should we care? These are, after all, prisoners.
One reason is self-serving. More than 95 percent of prisoners eventually are released and will return to our communities loaded down with the baggage of their prison experiences. Prisoner rape survivors suffer from a host of physical and psychological problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and sexually transmitted disease. Rates of HIV infection are three times higher inside prisons than on the outside. Once those prisoners are released, the burden of treating those maladies usually falls on the taxpayer.
But there’s an even more compelling reason to care about what goes on inside our prisons and jails. Those serving prison time are still human beings. Their convictions empower our society to revoke temporarily their right to liberty. But a civilized society does not torture its prisoners, no matter their crimes. Sexual abuse behind bars, with the full knowledge of corrections officials, is internationally recognized as a form of torture. It is past time for corrections officials in Texas and around the country to mandate measures that will prevent sexual violence in the first instance, as well as severely punish perpetrators if it does occur.
In the United States we like to point fingers at other nations for their shameful human rights records. Shouldn’t our high standards begin at home?
Kathy Hall-Martinez is the acting executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape. She can be reached at www.spr.org.