Life Was Hell For Gay Black Man In Texas Prison

Roderick Johnson is doing something about the indignities he suffered in a Texas prison. A gay, black man, Johnson was raped by more than one hundred men--nearly every day for 18 months. He's suing the Texas Department of Corrections and developing a program to "aid the re-integration of troubled young adults into mainstream society as productive, responsible citizens."

Hearing him speak, however, it seems the lawsuit embodies not an attempt at payback, but a demand for justice. "What's done is done," said 35-year-old Johnson. "I have harsh feelings, but I'm not vengeful."

....he was placed in Allred Prison, a maximum-security facility outside Wichita Falls, Texas. For Johnson, it was like being thrown into a viper's nest, he said. "I was in prison with people serving two life sentences," Johnson said. "They don't care about anything. Their lives are over."

At first he tried to survive as an independent - someone unaffiliated with any of the various gangs that Johnson said controlled the atmosphere inside. Soon, Johnson took another role, one forced upon him by inmates because of his sexuality, he said. "I became a 'she'," Johnson says. "In their eyes, I'm a woman."

Some of the inmates made him clean their cells and cook their food, he said. Then the rapes began. According to Johnson's lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, he was raped nearly every day for 18 months. He attempted seven times to convince a prison committee to move him into the safekeeping wing of the prison, where vulnerable prisoners such as known homosexuals and ex-police officers remain segregated from the general population. Each time, the committee refused his appeal.

"Blacks are basically in the general population," Johnson said, explaining the committee's refusals. "They believe that most black homosexuals can defend themselves." Johnson said he remained a victim until he wrote to the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project in a plea for help. Soon after, in April 2002, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the Texas Department of Corrections, Executive Director Gary Johnson and various Allred officials. A total of 22 people were implicated in the case.

People Magazine and Oprah are seeking interviews with Johnson, and a Reuters reporter is writing a book about him.

Texas is the worst state in the nation with respect to prison rape.

Texas was found to be the worst state in the nation for prison rape by Human Rights Watch in a 2001 report, according to the ACLU. A Department of Justice spokesperson told the San Antonio Express-News that approximately 225 cases of rape are reported each year, though the department has no way of knowing how many rapes actually occur.

The sheer magnitude of Johnson's case, however, has helped inspire change. The Texas Legislature recently enacted a Safe Prisons law requiring officials to transfer prisoners if other inmates victimize them. After Johnson's distraught family testified before a congressional committee, Congress approved the Prison Rape Elimination Act, signed by President Bush last fall. Now in its early stages, the measure calls for a national study of prison rape and will eventually require all U.S. prisons to conform to strict standards upon penalty of losing funding from the Department of Justice.

There is still a lot of work to be done, and Johnson is looking for volunteers:

Since 1999, shortly before he was sent to Allred Prison, Johnson started planning what he now calls "a movement." Behind bars, Johnson studied voraciously; 80 percent of each day was spent conducting research, studying statistics and learning how to create a successful program, he said. Already Johnson has rallied benefactors, including LifeWorks, the Community Action Network, the Homeless Task Force (of which Johnson is a member), Families of Incarcerated Loved Ones and Austin's district attorney's office. Today, he appears before city and social service leaders to talk about his vision.

...He's looking for volunteers, especially from the student population of Austin. Johnson is recruiting "a council of young people" who possess the expertise to get the job done and are willing to unite as a single voice.

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