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Texas: "Prison-Rape Capital Of The Country"

Texas: "Prison-Rape Capital Of The Country"

by Michael Rigby

Despite reputed efforts by officials in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to curb prison rapes, the number of reported sexual assaults has increased 160% in the past 4 years, from 234 in 2000 to 609 in 2004.

Some prisoner advocates say the problem is even more pervasive than statistics show. “I really have become convinced over the last three years or so that Texas is the prison-rape capital of the country,” said Margaret Winter, an attorney who represents two prisoners who sued TDCJ. “When prisoners report it, they are ignored, laughed at, and often punished.”

Many of the sexual assaults are perpetrated by guards. According to state records, since 2000 at least 129 Texas prisoners have reported being raped by guards or having sex with them.

One victim, Garrett Cunningham, 33, claimed that he was raped by former prison guard Michael Chaney, 53, near the showers at the Luther Unit in Navasota. Cunningham kept quiet about the 2000 assault because he feared retaliation. “He [the guard] told me he’d have me sent to another prison, where this would happen to me all the time from gang members,” Cunningham said. “That he could have me killed in there.”

Like Cunningham, many sexually victimized prisoners are reluctant to report the assaults. “Recurrence is the great fear,” said Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a psychology professor at the University of South Dakota who has studied incidents of prisoner rape in Midwestern prisons. “They fear harm by perpetrators, poor treatment by staff, and shame and embarrassment.”

What’s more, most allegations of prison sexual assaults never result in convictions. In the vast majority of cases charges are either not pursued or the perpetrators face lackluster prosecution—especially when a prison guard is involved.

Chaney is a typical example. Though at least three other prisoners also accused Chaney of raping them at the Luther Unit, only one resulted in charges. The prisoner in that 2001 case managed to save semen on a handkerchief, which DNA testing matched to Chaney. In January 2005, the prisoner settled a civil suit against Chaney and TDCJ for $54,000.

But Chaney still skated on the criminal charges. On March 11, 2005, he pleaded no contest to having sex with a prisoner—reduced from aggravated sexual assault—and was sentenced to three years’ probation, fined $1,000, and ordered to perform 300 hours of community service. Under the plea agreement, the criminal charges will be expunged from Chaney’s record if he successfully completes the probation.

Some of the rapes could have been avoided had prison officials taken the complaints of Cunningham and other prisoners seriously, said Ms. Winters, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “One prisoner was lucky enough to smuggle DNA evidence out of the prison,” she said. “But this man has had countless victims.”

Slowly, the issue of prison rape in Texas is gaining attention. The case of former state prisoner Roderick Johnson is responsible for much of it. Johnson is suing seven prison administrators and staff members claiming they did nothing while gangs bought and sold him as a sex slave. Johnson also alleges that prison administrators at the Allred Unit in Iowa Park refused to protect him because he’s gay. The case went to trial in September, 2005.

Cunningham said he too would like to be compensated for his ordeal, but that’s not likely to happen. When he filed a written complaint in 2003, investigators declined to pursue the matter because he had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies through the prison grievance process. Still, Cunningham believes that not addressing the issue at the time was the right decision. “Had I done it differently, I might not be sitting here right now,” he said. “I might have been shipped to another unit and mysteriously died.... Or an officer could find me dead in my cell.”

Cunningham, who has since been released, operates Pen Friends and Services in his spare time. The business provides prisoners with contacts and resources for legal information and free books.

Source: The Dallas Morning News

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