Welcome to Texas, prison rape capital of the U.S.

  • Daniel Villarreal
  • March 22, 2012
  • Dallas Voice

Lone Star State home to 5 of 10 worst facilities for sexual assault of inmates, and LGBT prisoners are 15 times more likely to be victims

In 2007, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice placed transgender woman Brittney Allen Young into the Powledge men’s prison unit in Palestine.

Early in her sentence, Young’s cellmate, Charles, began overpowering and raping her, according to a letter Young wrote to Dallas Voice recently.

Young says when she reported the assaults, the guards simply placed her in a different cell on the same wing where Charles and another inmate continued to rape her.

When Young reported the assaults to prison officials again, she says the TDCJ dismissed her claim as insubstantial because she didn’t have any witnesses.

TDCJ representatives failed to respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Young was eventually transferred to the Hughes Unit in Gatesville, but after she arrived there, an HIV-positive offender began raping her — and threatened to kill her if she reported it to guards, her letter states.

So instead, Young kept quiet and wrote to TDCJ ombudsman Ralph Bales, who’s responsible for implementing the 2003 federal Prison Rape Elimination Act in Texas prisons.

With Bales’ help, Young got moved to protective custody, where she’s housed with inmates who are suicidal, former gang members and ex-police officers.

Today, Young says she stays locked up 23 hours a day, unable to participate in the educational, vocational and religious programs her attackers still enjoy.

Young’s story is not unique.

Every year, more than 200,000 adults and children are sexually abused in U.S. prisons, jails and immigration detention facilities.

A 2008 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 4.5 percent of all inmates in America report sexual assaults.

The same study ranked five Texas prisons among the 10 U.S. prisons with the highest rates of inmate-reported sexual assaults.

In those five prisons, between 9 percent and 16 percent of all inmates report incidents of rape by fellow prisoners and prison staff.

And the statistics are even grimmer for LGBT inmates.

Just Detention International, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group that seeks to reduce prison rapes worldwide, calls LGBT inmates “among the most vulnerable in the prison population,” with 67 percent reporting a sexual assault during their sentences — a rate 15 times higher than the inmate population overall.

Juvenile LGBT prisoners report sexual assaults 12 times more often than their straight counterparts, according to a 2009 Department of Justice report.

And transgender adult inmates are sexually abused 13 times more often than other inmates, according to Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

According to Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, prison rapists tend to target young, physically weak Caucasians – usually first-time, nonviolent offenders who seem kind, unaggressive, shy or intellectual.

Jody Marksamer, an attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, says openly gay or lesbian inmates, or those with an “effeminate” appearance, often get targeted for the most brutal harassment and gang rapes, to initiate them as sex slaves.

TDCJ inmate Roderick Johnson, who’s openly gay, entered the Allred Unit near Wichita Falls in September 2000 on nonviolent charges of burglary, cocaine possession and cashing a bad check, according to multiple news reports about his case.

After Johnson’s arrival, he quickly came under the ownership of the Gangster Disciples, a prison gang that hadn’t had a sex slave for a while.

The Allred inmates gave Johnson a woman’s nickname, “Coco,” and forced him to make food, clean clothes and tidy up the cells while they pimped him out to other convicts for $10 payable in prison commissary credit and cigarettes.

Johnson spent the next 18 months being orally and anally raped in the cells, stairwells and showers of Allred prison every day by men he called “a pit of vipers” and “a pack of wolves,” the news reports say. Once they even forced Johnson and a mentally ill man to masturbate each other in the shower while forcing the man to repeatedly insert a finger into Johnson’s anus and then lick that finger.

“I was in prison with people serving two life sentences,” Johnson told The Daily Texan in a 2004 interview. “They don’t care about anything. Their lives are over.”

Rape survivors like Young and Johnson have to overcome several obstacles before they can even report an incident: They must survive the assault, then deal with the shock and disgust of violation without cleaning the evidence off their bodies by showering, brushing their teeth or drinking.

Often, fear of retaliation and shame will prevent survivors from immediately reporting attacks. And those who do don’t always have witnesses to help corroborate their tale.

They might also face a barrage of victim-blaming questions from prison officials such as, “How did you let that happen? Why did you go there in the first place? Why didn’t you tell anyone sooner?” — questions that imply they possibly deserved the assault and should feel ashamed, if they don’t already.

Johnson reported his rapes through a series of complaints, letters and grievances filed to prison officials.

He also appeared before the unit’s classification committee seven times to request placement into protective custody.

But Johnson says the officials didn’t do anything because they considered his proof insubstantial; he says they even took pleasure in his trauma and suggested that he either learn to fight or submit, hinting that he probably enjoyed the rapes because he’s gay.

Marksamer, of the NCLR, says prison guards can be just as dangerous as inmates, sometimes conspiring with prisoners to beat up or rape gay convicts who complain, placing them in the cells of well-known abusers or leaving LGBT inmates’ cells open to sexual predators. They can also encourage the maltreatment of LGBT inmates by referring to them with slurs or by names of the opposite gender.

In women’s prisons, guards will sometimes trade sex for goods and privileges, Marksamer says.

They’re often allowed to watch women shower, disrobe or use the toilet and can harass, degrade, grope and sexually abuse them during frisks and body searches.

And for undocumented people in American immigration detention centers, American Civil Liberties Union counsel Joanne Lin said the abuses can get much worse.

“Many immigration detainees do not speak or read English well, and do not know what their legal rights are in the United States,” Lin told National Public Radio recently. “Traumatized by the sexual assaults, they are understandably loath to report the abuse to the same government authorities that have the power to rape, detain and deport them.”

The American Civil Liberty Union’s National Prison Project eventually sued the TDCJ in April 2002 for violating Johnson’s constitutional rights protecting against cruel and unusual punishment and guaranteeing equal protection under the law, based on his race and sexual orientation. But in 2005, a jury dismissed the lawsuit.

Johnson now lives on parole in Austin, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, taking anti-depressants and facing nightmares and suicidal thoughts each day.

But advocates say Johnson is one of the lucky ones.

JDI’s McFarlane says it’s impossible to know how many prison assaults end in death, how many prisoners pass away due to complications from AIDS, other untreated STDs, and injuries and suicide — the mental and physical toll is enormous.

A 2006 study of sexual violence in Texas prisons from the criminal justice research company, the JFA Institute, attributed Texas’ higher rates of reported sexual assaults to the 2003 implementation of the Safe Prisons program.

The Safe Prisons program aims to reduce prison violence by instructing inmates and guards on how to correctly report an assault, separating vulnerable inmates from attackers, and offering survivors psychological care while investigators and medical forensic experts seek out evidence of the alleged assault.

However, soon after the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2008 study listed Allred and four other Texas prisons among the most sexually abusive in the nation, Just Detention International examined the inmate letters they’d received from Texas — which account for about one-fourth of their inmate letters overall.

JDI found repeated accounts of the myriad abuses described in this article, which the group says indicates that the situation in Texas prisons hasn’t improved significantly.

Although President George W. Bush signed the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act into law with a unanimous congressional vote — the PREA even had the support of the anti-gay group Focus on the Family — advocates say there aren’t adequate mechanisms to enforce the reforms or evaluate prison compliance.

As advocacy groups continue their work, they say the LGBT community can help by pressuring lawmakers and prison officials to adopt standards developed by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in 2009.

Even though about 1 percent of the U.S. population is in prison, JDI’s McFarlane thinks that the American public has not pressured the government for prison rape reform because it’s easy to ignore an entire population that’s locked away.

When asked how she feels about prison rape jokes and pornography, or LGBT online commenters who think gay-bashers deserve rape in prisons, McFarlane responded: “We do want to really encourage people to think twice about the reality of what they’re joking about. When American citizens in government-run facilities have no rights, then none of us do.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 23, 2012.

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