What Really Happened To Rodeny Hulin?

Since his death, teenage inmate Rodney Hulin has become a national symbol of why it's wrong to send juveniles to adult prisons. His true story, though, paints a different kind of troubling picture.

An inmate friend of Rodney's wrote Hulin's father a year later that "Salazar on second shift done all he could to help your son. Your son was placed in special cell restrictions on C-Line [for refusing to work] with a nigger; this nigger beat your son silly, took his rhino boots he had gotten. Well, he was moved to another nigger's cell where he was beaten again; finally they placed him in his own cell. This happened when your son had repeatedly told officials blacks was mugging him and raping him."

By Christmas 1995, Rodney was in despair. The Unit Classification Committee had unanimously denied his request for protection, and though he was still writing to his parents about the possibility of parole, if he had learned anything about prison politics that hope should have been vanishing. In theory he could have gotten out in two years, but Texas has been building prisons at a vigorous pace, and only 12 to 15 percent of paroles are being granted. And by refusing to work and creating administrative problems, Rodney wasn't exactly placing himself in line for favorable treatment.

Being a victim was no way to be a model prisoner. Rodney's mother says she phoned the warden about the beatings and threats, and claims he told her, "This happens every day; it's no big deal." One of Rodney's friends in prison wrote his father that the warden's advice to Hulin was that "you do not need protection, you need some nuts."

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When Rodney Hulin had been moved to the Clemens Unit, his father had rejoiced that he might be able to see him, since the prison is only a couple of hours away from his home in Beaumont. In November, shortly after Rodney arrived, his father visited him, bringing a slice of pizza and paying $3 to have their picture taken by a guard. They did not talk about the rape, his father recalls. The elder Hulin felt awkward about the subject, and never brought it up. Mostly they talked about old times. A month later, Rodney's father visited again, only to find that his son's glasses had been broken in a fight and that he was shipping them home to his mother for repair. A guard who was aware of the boy's problems tried to slip the father a lawyer's card, but Hulin didn't take it. It was the last time he would see his son conscious.

Rodney kicked up a flurry of paperwork, requesting protective custody on December 18, January 13 and January 18. On January 22, the Clemens warden wrote him back that his first two requests had been denied and that his last was "pending." By this time Rodney was being housed alone in C row, a cell block reserved for difficult prisoners.

A Hollywood movie cell is palatial compared to those found in Clemens, which are nine-foot-long steel boxes with a five-foot-wide barred door. In one wall is a commode, and in a back corner is a tiny sink. Two steel shelves are welded onto the white walls, to which nothing else can be fastened.

By late January of last year, Hulin had such a cell to himself. In C row the barred doors are covered with a steel mesh to prevent inmates from throwing things. But there is a slot, and on January 26, 1996, Rodney skittered a "kite," a folded note, two cells down to another inmate. Give it to a guard, Rodney told him. The inmate could barely read, so he passed it on to the next prisoner, who saw that it was a suicide note.

Prison officials deal with suicides all the time. Last year, the TDCJ recorded 500 attempts; Rodney Hulin's was one of 20 successes. In the free world, suicide attempts are usually taken as a cry for help. But in prison, a suicide attempt can be viewed as a cynical attempt to get to the relatively comfortable psychiatric ward. Guards tell with a jeer about inmates who make superficial cuts on their wrists in order to get a ticket to the psychiatric ward. It seems that the only way prison officials could tell whether Rodney was truly suicidal was by letting him commit suicide.

The day before his hanging, Rodney was evaluated by a nurse for his "pre-segregation health evaluation." She checked him as "logical" and "organized" under his psychiatric evaluation, but circled nothing under his emotional state, which offered choices including "anxious" and "fearful." Maybe Rodney wasn't anxious or fearful; after all, suicides who have made up their minds often become calm and peaceful because they believe their misery is soon going to be over.

The inmate who read Rodney's note wrote Hulin's father that he gave it to the third shift officer at 10 p.m. and warned him that Rodney was talking about killing himself. The inmate wrote that Rodney had tied his door shut, but that the guard didn't look in through the heavy, screening mesh. About 10:30 p.m., he wrote, "your son asked us to beat/bang for the officer. As we heard his last words we heard him grunt and some weird noise. We thought he was bullshitting, but we banged. The officer didn't come just on his own. We told him the dude in 17 cell was hanging hisself. The officer went to Rodney's cell and got as white as a ghost, and ran screaming. A bunch of police came (including rank); they was trying to roll the door, but Rodney had it tied down. They finally cut the sheets he had it tied shut with. I'm watching all this in a mirror. They carried your son out to the infirmary (one police carrying his arms, the other his feet) and he was gone."

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