The New York Times

September 25, 2005
Inmate Was Considered 'Property' of Gang, Witness Tells Jury in Prison Rape Lawsuit

WICHITA FALLS, Tex., Sept. 22 - Roderick Johnson, a former inmate at the Allred Unit, a violent prison a few miles from here, belonged to a gang called the Gangster Disciples, but not in the usual sense, the gang's former No. 2 man explained Wednesday in federal court here.

"Was Mr. Johnson considered a member of the Gangster Disciples?" one of Mr. Johnson's lawyers asked the witness, whose name was withheld by the court because his testimony could subject him to retaliation.

"No," said the witness, a soft-spoken, perfectly bald and quite imposing black man in a prison uniform and shackles.

"What was he considered?" asked the lawyer, Jeffrey Monks.

"Property," came the reply.

That meant, the witness continued, that gang members could rape Mr. Johnson at will. They could, he said, also rent him out for sex, and they did, daily. A purchased rape, the witness said, cost $3 to $7. Mr. Johnson says the abuse went on for 18 months.

Mr. Johnson, who was in Allred for probation violations after a burglary conviction, has sued seven prison officials there for violating the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The officials, the suit says, failed to protect him and took sadistic pleasure in his victimization. Mr. Johnson was released in 2003.

His lawsuit, filed in 2002, has drawn national attention to the issue of sexual slavery in prisons. Testimony this week has corroborated aspects of his account and opened a window onto a world in which, Mr. Johnson and other prisoners said, sexual slavery at the hands of prison gangs is common.

Lawyers for the defendants do not deny that prison rape is a real and serious problem. But they say that Mr. Johnson made up the story of his victimization and that, in any event, they did all the law required to protect him in an inherently dangerous environment.

Some of the sex was consensual, lawyers for the officials say, pointing to seemingly affectionate letters that Mr. Johnson wrote to men he has accused of raping him. A letter to another prisoner discussed the money Mr. Johnson hoped to win in the lawsuit.

Mr. Johnson, 37, is a black gay man with a gentle manner. He is represented by the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Many people in this medium-size city near the Oklahoma border still have raw feelings about the civil liberties union, which won a federal lawsuit in 2000 that forced the local library to put two picture books for children about gay men and lesbians, "Heather Has Two Mommies" and "Daddy's Roommate," back in the children's section.

The jury in Mr. Johnson's case, which includes two alternates, is made up of six white women, seven white men and a black man. They listened attentively and took notes as Richard E. Wathen, an assistant warden, testified that there was nothing in Mr. Johnson's seven written pleas for help that warranted moving him to what prison officials call safekeeping, a housing unit reserved for vulnerable gay men, former gang members and convicted police officers.

"I believe that we did the right thing then, and I would make the same decision today," Mr. Wathen testified Wednesday. "There has to be some extreme threat before we put an offender in safekeeping."

In pretrial testimony, Jimmy Bowman, another defendant, explained that Mr. Johnson's account was not credible because he had failed to resist the men he said raped him.

"Sometimes an inmate has to defend himself," Mr. Bowman said. "We don't expect him not to do anything."

Good corroborating evidence of rape, Mr. Bowman said, might include "bruises" and "possible broken bones."

"Sometimes might be a little worse," he added.

The jurors put down their notepads and listened stonily as the former gang member described what went on within the walls of Allred.

"I was I.C." the witness said, "which is an institutional coordinator. I had second position over the unit. It means that everything that goes on in the unit has to go through me."

Mr. Johnson was a "free-world homosexual," the witness said. That meant that the other prisoners considered him a woman in prison, and chattel. They called Mr. Johnson by a nickname, Coco, and referred to him using feminine pronouns.

The witness was a grave man, but he sometime burst into quick, bemused smiles when he was asked what seemed to him a na´ve question. For instance: Did Mr. Johnson have a choice?

"You'll be beaten until you say yes," the witness said. "He'd be beaten, stabbed, whatever."

Prison officials, the witness said, knew what was going on. "They turned a blind eye," he said. "They seen what was happening, but they pretended they didn't."

As the witness testified Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Johnson covered his face with one hand and gripped the armrest of his chair with the other. A little later, he cried.

The judge, Barbara M. G. Lynn, who ordinarily sits in Dallas, has indicated a keen interest in protecting prisoners who testify from reprisals, whether from gang members or prison officials. She initially ruled that she would close the courtroom unless the reporters present agreed not to reveal the prisoners' names.

"I have reason to believe that there is a substantial risk to the personal safety and security of these witnesses," Judge Lynn said. "I request and implore you not to report the names of these individuals."

After hearing arguments from representatives of The New York Times and The Associated Press, Judge Lynn modified her ruling. Prisoner witnesses would give their names in a closed courtroom, she ruled, but the rest of their testimony would be public.

In an interview here on Wednesday, Mr. Johnson said he had moved back to his hometown, Marshall, in East Texas. He does volunteer work, helping former prisoners get on their feet after release.

Mike Viesca, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the state's prisons, said investigators and a grand jury here found Mr. Johnson's version of events to be untrue in places and unsubstantiated in others. The grand jury declined to indict anyone in the case.

"As the trial progresses," Mr. Viesca said, "it will become even clearer that the seven defendants in no way discriminated against Mr. Johnson because of his sexual preference or any other reason."

The trial will continue Monday, and the jurors will have to sort out what happened to Mr. Johnson at Allred. The two sides agree about almost nothing, but Mr. Wathen, the assistant warden, did identify one piece of common ground on Wednesday.

"Prison," he said, "is a violent place."