Louisiana Appeals Court Hears ACLU Arguments in Prison Sex Slave Case

July 7, 2004 12:00 am

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NEW ORLEANS – In a lawsuit filed on behalf of a gay African-American man who was repeatedly raped by Texas prison gangs, the American Civil Liberties Union today urged a federal appeals court to uphold a district court ruling that denied prison officials qualified immunity for their failure to protect him.

“Court records show that for years, violent gangs have terrorized vulnerable Texas prisoners but officials deliberately ignore the evidence and fail to stop it,” said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “Roderick Johnson was one of those vulnerable prisoners who asked for protection but got none.”

The ACLU’s oral argument today in New Orleans defends an order issued in April 2003 by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas that denied prison administrators and staff qualified immunity in the lawsuit Johnson v. Johnson.

In its brief to the Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, the ACLU said Johnson had produced ample evidence showing that Texas prison officials “were well aware of the significant risk that …[he] would be raped and that they consciously disregarded the risk, arbitrarily denying him protection.” Indeed, direct evidence provided by Johnson includes statements by prison officers announcing that they were denying him protection because it was up to Johnson to fight off predators if he did not choose to sexually submit to them.

In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that officials have a duty to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners. “[H]aving stripped them of virtually every means to self-protection and foreclosed their access to outside aid, the government and its officials are not free to let the state of nature take its course,” wrote Justice David H. Souter in Farmer v. Brennan. “Being violently assaulted in prison is simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society.”

For 18 months, Roderick Keith Johnson was housed at the James A. Allred Unit in Iowa Park, Texas where prison gangs bought and sold him as a sexual slave, raping, abusing, and degrading him nearly every day. Johnson filed numerous grievances, letters, and complaints with prison officials and appeared before the unit’s classification committee seven separate times asking to be transferred to safe-keeping, protective custody, or another prison, but each time they refused. Not until the ACLU’s National Prison Project intervened on Johnson’s behalf, was he moved out of the Allred Unit and into a wing designated for vulnerable prisoners.

Now paroled and living in Austin, Johnson has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and continues to be plagued by nightmares because of the horrors he endured while incarcerated.

“Roderick Johnson’s case is a shocking acknowledgment of the brutal violence that can occur in American prisons,” said Winter. “Prison officials’ deliberate indifference to that violence is cruel and inhumane.”

Today’s qualified immunity argument will be presented by Winter of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Craig Cowie, also of the National Prison Project, will present another oral argument today in the Johnson case. He will defend the district court’s finding that Johnson satisfactorily exhausted the prison system’s administrative grievance process prior to filing his lawsuit.

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