By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Under the rules of the Texas prison system, the last photograph of Rodney Hulin alive should never have been taken. Visitors are forbidden to bring cameras into the Ellis Unit hospital in Huntsville, but in the spring of 1996, Hulin's family smuggled one in anyway. For weeks Hulin had been lying comatose, and nobody believed he would last much longer. According to information Hulin's father received from another inmate, on January 26, 1996, in a cell where he was being held alone, Rodney Hulin had torn up his bed sheet, tied one end around a locker above the cell door, the other end around his neck, and then jumped from his top bunk, crushing his windpipe and cutting off the flow of blood to his brain. He was 17 years old. His crime had been second-degree arson with property damage of less than $500.
By the time prison guards got Rodney down, he was nearly dead. During the next four months, his father and mother watched him wither in a prison hospital bed. In his final picture, a hand-drawn tattoo of a cross can be seen on his arm. His mouth is a frozen rictus of pain, his body stiffened. But most chilling is the long blue tracheotomy tube emerging from his throat and trailing out of the frame of the photograph.
Though Hulin's parents have had little luck getting the official details of what exactly happened to their son, they have little question as to why Rodney killed himself. He had told them that within three days of his November 1995 transfer to the Clemens Unit in Brazoria County he had been raped by another inmate. He also complained of being beaten by other prisoners, forced to perform oral sex and being threatened with extortion and further sexual assault. During his two-and-a-half-month stay at Clemens, he repeatedly appealed to prison authorities for protection, but was always turned down. A former mental patient with a history of depression, he wrote letters to his mother and father in which he despaired of ever leaving prison alive.
What Hulin's parents still don't understand is why all this happened. Rodney had spent six months in the Randall County jail in Amarillo awaiting trial and sentencing with little trouble, and then another three months in the Middleton Unit in Abilene without major problems. It was only after he arrived at Clemens that his life behind bars went to hell.
In the months since his death, Rodney Hulin has received the sort of attention he was never able to garner when he was alive, becoming a symbol to many of just what can happen when a young offender is placed in an adult jail. The gripping and disturbing hospital photo taken by his parents has been broadcast on the CBS Evening News as part of a story about juvenile justice, and is likely to appear on CBS again this fall on Bryant Gumbel's new TV magazine show. Citing Hulin's story as a prime example, editorialists in The New York Times and The Nation have warned of the consequences of a federal bill that would give money to states that certify more juveniles as adults and put them in adult prisons.
There's only one problem with this emphasis: When Rodney Hulin hanged himself, he was not in a traditional adult prison. Instead, he was in a unit set aside specifically for younger offenders. And Hulin was not abused by older inmates. He was abused by boys his own age.
What happened to Rodney Hulin didn't happen because he was in prison with mature offenders. What happened to Rodney Hulin happened because he was sent to a prison that was ill-equipped to deal with him. In the case of Rodney Hulin, the reform being pushed by those who are hoisting him as a placard for their cause likely wouldn't have helped. What might have helped is a reform much harder to come by than segregating prisoners by age. It's a reform that involves paying attention to prisoners as people, rather than as problems to solve.
Rodney Hulin was named for his father, known to his family as "big Rodney" to distinguish him from his son. Now 43, the elder Rodney lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Beaumont, where he runs a small leathercraft business, making custom items from alligator hides. Since his son's hanging, Hulin has become immersed in the issue of prison reform, and the issue of how his son came to die. He keeps a thick stack of his son's prison records near at hand, and corresponds with inmates who were present when his son hanged himself. He was the one who made his son's hospital portrait public, and this June, in a Washington press conference, he spoke out against the growing trend of incarcerating juveniles and adults together. After telling his story in the nation's capital, he flew to Seattle to appear on a television talk show. He expects more television appearances in the future.
If Hulin sees any irony in his son's becoming a symbol of a cause that likely wouldn't have helped him, it isn't apparent. What is apparent is that the dead child has become the father's life. He remembers his son with great affection, calling him his "sweetheart." But Hulin admits that the younger Rodney was not an easy child to raise.