Sept. 14, 2004 – A federal appeals court has ruled that Texas prison officials are not immune from a lawsuit alleging they discriminated against an inmate who repeatedly asked them for protection from assault and rape.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that Roderick Johnson, a former Texas inmate who says prison officials deliberately denied him protection from prison gang members who repeatedly raped, assaulted, threatened him with violence and death and traded him as a sex slave can move ahead with his lawsuit. The officials had argued that they could not be sued because they were acting as public employees and had no reason to believe they were violating Johnsonâ€™s constitutional rights.
However, the Appeals Court noted a 1994 US Supreme Court ruling that it is the responsibility of prison officials to protect inmates from violence at the hands of fellow prisoners. "[H]aving stripped them of virtually every means to self-protection and foreclosed their access to outside aid, the government and its officials are not free to let the state of nature take its course," said the Supreme Court in Farmer v. Brennan. "Being violently assaulted in prison is simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society."
American Civil Liberties Union lawyers representing Johnson say that during the eighteen months that Johnson was housed at the James A. Allred Unit in Iowa Park, Texas "prison gangs bought and sold him as a sexual slave, raping, abusing, and degrading him nearly every day."
In a legal brief filed with the court, the ACLU accused numerous prison officials from guards to the director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) of deliberately turning a blind eye to the nightmare Johnson endured. Johnson went through numerous official channels, virtually exhausting all means available to him in his effort to persuade prison officials to grant him protection.
Texas prisons have gained national and international notoriety for widespread and seemingly systemic prisoner-on-prisoner violence. In 1999 a federal judge said, "The culture of sadistic and malicious violence that continues to pervade the Texas prison system violates contemporary standards of decency." Judge William Wayne Justice found that inmates are routinely subjected to violence, extortion, and rape, officers are aware of inmate-on-inmate victimization but fail to respond to the victims, and there are high barriers preventing inmates from seeking safekeeping or protective custody.
According to the ACLU, Texas prison policies mandate that vulnerable prisoners should not be housed with the general population when there are threats to their personal safety and potential for victimization, such as having enemies in the inmate population, homosexuality, "effeminacy," lack of criminal sophistication, any previous history of safekeeping, or an appearance of vulnerability, such as a demeanor that fails to convey to sexual predators that the prisoner cannot be victimized.
Johnsonâ€™s lawyers say that as a black, "effeminate" gay man, their client clearly should have been automatically granted his numerous requests for safekeeping. Furthermore, they point out that their client was housed in safekeeping prior to being moved to the James A. Allred Unit in Iowa Park, Texas.
However, according to the brief, when Johnson told Major Kenneth Bright, who chaired Johnsonâ€™s initial classification hearing, that he had been previously placed in safekeeping, Bright told him "We donâ€™t protect punks on this farm." The ACLU translates "punks" as meaning "homosexuals" in prison lingo. According to the brief, Johnson was assigned to the general population where "prison gang members asserted ownership over [him] and raped him almost immediately."
Texas officials have claimed that Johnson is lying about the sexualized violence and abuse he endured and that he engaged in consensual sex with other prisoners. During the eighteen months that Johnson was housed at the Allred Unit, officials repeatedly denied his requests for protective custody, saying there was no evidence to support Johnsonâ€™s claims.
In itâ€™s complaint the ACLU alleges that when Johnson begged prison officials for help, they told him he needed to fight to protect himself or submit to a stronger man for protection.
Only after intervention by the ACLU was Johnson moved to a wing of the prison set aside for vulnerable prisoners. Johnson is now paroled and living in Austin but according to his lawyers, he continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. He is suing for damages stemming from discrimination based on sexual orientation and for violations of his right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.
"I could not be more pleased that we are one step closer to Roderick Johnson having his day in court," said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLUâ€™s National Prison Project and lead attorney for Johnson, in a press statement about the courtâ€™s decision to allow them to move ahead with the case. "Once heard, Mr. Johnsonâ€™s testimony about the horrifying abuse he endured and the prison staffâ€™s deliberate indifference to that abuse will shock Texas citizens and hopefully bring about improvements for all prisoners in similar circumstances."