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.

But Rodney Hulin wasn't free of the Texas prison system. At the Brazoria hospital his heartbeat was restored, and he was transferred to the prison unit at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, where he was kept under guard. Within two days, he was given a tracheotomy. When his parents visited, he seemed to respond to them, following them around the room with his eyes. It was the first time Rodney's parents had spent any time together in years. His father was optimistic at first, but the optimism didn't last. Once his son's breathing was stabilized through the tracheotomy tube, the prognosis was that he would die of infectious pneumonia. He was sent to the hospital prison unit in Galveston, and on his 18th birthday, March 2, 1996, Rodney Hulin was transferred to the prison hospital at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville.

His mother didn't think much of the care at the Ellis Unit. When she found Rodney in Huntsville shortly after his transfer, she says, he was dirty and covered with blood from spastic seizures. In Huntsville he developed a foul-smelling fungus on his hands, a crust in his mouth and cradle cap on his scalp. Her son got no nutrition, she claims, until the last two weeks of his life, when a feeding tube was inserted in his navel.

His father applied for a medical parole and miraculously, the prison bureaucracy came through. A room in a nursing home in Abilene was arranged, and Rodney was scheduled to be moved there on May 11, 1996. He never made it. He died in prison late in the evening of May 9.

Linda Bruntmyer concedes that her son was a criminal, but, she says, he was still a human being, not just a number. She has yet to get her son's journal back from the prison, or his suicide note. Neither parent has seen the results of the state's investigation into their son's death, despite their requests to do so. And now, for the elder Rodney Hulin, who saw so little of his son while he was alive, reforming the treatment of youthful offenders has become a crusade.

It began when, on the advice of an inmate, he sent his son's hospital picture to Ray Hill, the ex-convict and prison reformer who hosts the Prison Show on KPFT/90.1 FM every Friday night. Hill found the picture so compelling that he talked about it on the air, and then handed it over to an associate who works with the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU lawyers informed Hulin that they would file suit on behalf of the family.

The ACLU has made Rodney Hulin the leading example of what's wrong with sending juveniles to jail -- even if, by doing so, they've washed away part of the truth of what happened to him, and at the same time washed away part of the truth of who he really was. At an ACLU-sponsored protest of a federal bill to give states incentives to certify more juveniles as adults, Rodney's father was a central figure. He gave a written statement to representatives of Congress declaring "my son was repeatedly beaten by the older inmates" -- even though all of the documentary evidence suggests that his troubles were with inmates his own age.

The details have been shaped to fit the story. Bruce Shapiro of The Nation wrote that Rodney had been sentenced at age 16 when he was really 17 (he was 16 when he was arrested, not when he was sentenced). Rodney wrote his father that there were 2,000 inmates at his unit and that half of them were HIV positive, erroneous information that New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis quoted without checking. Prison officials say that actually there were a thousand inmates in Rodney's unit, and that they knew of 25 at the time who were HIV positive.

In the process of attacking a trend, the reality of what happened to Rodney Hulin, and the reality of some serious problems facing young offenders, has been overlooked. The truth is that youthful inmates may be in as much danger from their peers as from older inmates, and that simple segregation by age isn't a panacea.

The Youth Offenders Program at the Clemens Unit is "being made up as we go," says warden Terry Foster. The program was created with every intention of keeping young inmates separate from the adult population, but it was also created with no special resources. It's only this month that the Youthful Offenders Program at the Clemens Unit is hiring its first full-time social workers, who will be supervised by the program's first director, a young psychologist named Diana Coates who was promoted to the position only this summer. Coates and Foster believe that they can succeed with the young offenders, chiefly by keeping them busy in work and education programs and by supervising them closely. Foster says he's allocating more officers to the young inmates' cellblocks in an effort to make sure something like Rodney Hulin's suicide doesn't happen again.

All of which, of course, does nothing for Rodney Hulin. Before her son died, his mother told him that he had been paroled and was a free man, and she believes he understood her. A couple of days earlier she had told him she knew he couldn't hang on much longer.

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