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Suit Over Rape of Prisoner By TDCJ Employee Settled for $118,318.56 and Beach Property

By Matthew T. Clarke

On November 19, 2004, a Texas prisoner who was raped by a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) guard settled his suit against the guard and TDCJ for a total of $118,318.56 and the guard’s beach property.

Nathan Essary, 22, a Texas state prisoner of slight build, little prison experience and a history of mental illness, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging Michael Chaney, 25, a former TDCJ employee, sexually assaulted him and Luther Unit assistant warden Jerry Barrett failed to prevent the sexual assaults even though he knew of Chaney having previously sexually abused other prisoners and Essary.

Essary arrived at the minimum-security Luther Unit from the Montfort mental health unit in May 2001 after treatment for suicidal depression caused by his having been gang-raped at the Sanchez Unit in El Paso. He was assigned to the laundry where Chaney, a Laundry Manager, was well-known for improperly touching and sexually harassing prisoners. Chaney turned his unwanted attention upon Essary. Essary avoided this situation by getting himself transferred to another shift. Later, Chaney was assigned periodically to that shift. He ignored Essary’s pleas to stop the verbal harassment and unwanted touching.

Chaney threatened to give Essary bogus disciplinary write ups if he reported the harassment. Fearful that this would prevent his making parole, Essary kept silent. Chaney’s behavior grew increasingly aggressive. He began kissing Essary and grabbing his genitals. Using threats, Chaney forced Essary to masturbate him. Essary managed to preserve some of Chaney’s semen on his handkerchief which he mailed to the U.S. Attorney in Houston.

About a week later, Chaney ordered Essary to submit to sex. Essary refused. Chaney then threatened to have gang members kill Essary. Using that threat, he forced Essary to perform oral sex on him. Essary again managed to preserve some of the semen on his handkerchief.

Within a few days, Chaney was taunting Essary about wanting to “do it again soon.” Essary put in a request to see a counselor. He met with two psychologists and told them of the sexual assaults. One of them told Essary that he had received several complaints from other prisoners regarding Chaney’s sexually predatory behavior. Barrett was summoned.

Essary told Barrett of the threats and sexual assaults and asked for protection. Barrett told Essary that he would change his job. Essary told Barrett that he needed immediate help as he was scheduled to work with Chaney that evening, but Barrett just said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get a job change.”

That afternoon, Chaney came to Essary’s cell and ordered him to work. Later that afternoon, Chaney told Essary that he knew Essary was getting a job change and ordered him to stay late so they could “do it one more time.” Using threats, Chaney again forced Essary to masturbate him. Later that night, Essary received a job change.

On May 30, 2002, based upon DNA test results on the preserved semen, Chaney was indicted in the 278th Judicial District Court in Huntsville on one count of aggravated sexual assault and improper sexual activity. He was released on bond.

Essary sought the assistance of the ACLU. ACLU attorneys Margaret Winter and Amy Fettig of Washington D.C. and Meredith Martin Rountree of Austin, Texas represented him. TDCJ settled its part of the lawsuit by agreeing to pay Essary $64,000 in damages and the ACLU $46,000 in attorney fees and costs. TDCJ also agreed not to seek costs of incarceration from Essary. Chaney settled his part of the suit by agreeing to pay Essary a lump sum of $12,318.56 and monthly payments of $50 for ten years as well as deeding two lots located in Crystal Beach, Texas, and valued at $30,000 to Essary. Neither TDCJ, Barrett nor Chaney admitted wrongdoing.

The criminal case, which was filed in 2002, has languished in district court. Gina DeBois, chief of the Special Prosecution Unit for prison crimes, said that she would like to see something happen soon; however, “the case is filed in a district court where the judge does not place a high priority on cases that happen in TDCJ.” Judge Kenneth H. Keeling of the 278th Judicial District Court tells a different story. He says no one from the Special Prosecution Unit or Grimes County District Attorney’s Office has asked for a trial date. Chaney’s criminal defense attorney, Frank Blazek, expressed another sentiment.

“I assume that, with the settlement of the civil case, the criminal case will go away,” stated Blazek.

On March 11, 2005, Chaney was sentenced to probation, community service, and a fine. See following article for details.

Blazek is right. Perhaps justice is for sale in the law-and-order State of Texas. It could be that the tough-on-crime policy behind the motto: “Don’t Mess With Texas” has exceptions when the criminal is part of the system. Could it be that an aggravated sexual assault prosecution, a charge that would send the average convicted defendant to prison for thirty or more years, can be bought off for a mere $12,318.56, fifty bucks a month and $30,000 in beach property? There are many men in TDCJ that would have loved to have had that sweetheart deal. Of course, they aren’t in TDCJ as employees. See: Essary v. Chaney, U.S.D.C., S.D.Tex-Houston Div., Case No. H-02-3822.

Additional Sources: Houston Chronicle

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Related legal case

Essary v. Chaney

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