Texas prison officials can be sued for damages due to discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to a unanimous ruling issued by the fifth circuit court of appeals on Thursday. The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a gay man who was repeatedly raped by prison gangs and whose pleas for help were ignored by officials. Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project and an attorney for the former prisoner, Roderick Keith Johnson, applauded the ruling as a national first. The decision also upheld the right to proceed in the case under the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. "I could not be more pleased that we are one step closer to Roderick Johnson having his day in court," said Winter. "Once heard, Mr. Johnson's testimony about the horrifying abuse he endured and the prison staff's deliberate indifference to that abuse will shock Texas citizens and, hopefully, bring about improvements for all prisoners in similar circumstances."
According to the ACLU, Johnson was housed at the James A. Allred Unit in Iowa Park, Texas, for 18 months, 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, telling him that he must "fight or fuck." Prison officials moved Johnson out of the Allred Unit and into a wing designated for vulnerable prisoners only after the ACLU intervened on his behalf.
In its ruling the federal court noted the U.S. Supreme Court's 1994 ruling 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." Johnson's case has now been remanded to the U.S. district court for the northern district of Texas, and the ACLU hopes to proceed to trial shortly.