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.

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.

"He was destructive and would tear up toys," says Hulin. "He could also be easygoing. It was like a split personality. I remember slapping his hand as a baby, and he thought that was terrible. He would have tantrums and be very stubborn."

Rodney was also a hyperactive boy fascinated with fire, a fascination that would eventually land him in prison. His mother, Linda Bruntmyer, says that as a toddler he grabbed a candle and lit the curtains aflame. "He was standing there laughing at it," she recalls. When he was about three and a half, his father says, Rodney burned his feet on some hot coals at a campground, and the father blamed the mother for not supervising him. The child was burned another time when he was six. He told three different stories about what happened: his father did it, his mother did it, or he did it himself.

"He lived in a fantasy world," says Bruntmyer. "At the time I believed his dad burned him, but years later he told me he did it to himself, and he laughed about it."

He could be lovable, but he also demanded attention. "He was very jealous of his sister," Bruntmyer says. "He would steal her bottles and pacifiers, and would hurt both his brother and sister. They were scared of him."

From the beginning, the Hulin family was in crisis. Bruntmyer married Rodney Hulin, a Marine veteran, restaurant chef and construction worker, in 1977 and gave birth to her first son, Rodney, in 1978. A daughter, Suzette, followed in 1980, and another son, Rynell, in 1981. They lived in the tiny, picturesque town of Natchitoches, Louisiana. There, in February 1982, the Louisiana Department of Health and Human Resources provided the Hulin family with counseling after receiving reports of physical and emotional abuse of the children. That October, the Hulins separated, and in May 1983, Rodney Hulin received custody of all three children. He didn't keep them long.

According to Louisiana state documents, in August 1984 a juvenile officer from Natchitoches Parish investigated six-year-old Rodney's burned foot and couldn't sort out the boy's conflicting stories about who had caused it. Both Rodney and his younger brother were placed in a foster home; Suzette stayed with her mother's sister.

Hulin says that when his former sister-in-law tried to get permanent custody of Suzette, he helped his ex-wife, who had remarried, reunite all the children. He was weary of court battles, he says, and wanted his sons and daughter to stay together. During the next several years, as his former wife divorced again and remarried again, moving from Oklahoma to Dallas to Amarillo, he saw Rodney and the others only rarely. When Hulin had custody of his son, he says, he enrolled him in the first grade in Port Arthur, where teachers quickly realized the child was disturbed. "He would try to hurt other children with a pencil," Hulin recalls. "He took off his clothes and displayed himself. He was always trying to attract attention, mostly in negative ways."

After Rodney returned to his mother, Hulin kept in touch by phone and mail. The highlight of their relationship during this period was a two-week-long visit to his Beaumont apartment when the boy was 13. During the visit, Hulin discovered that his son had taken money from his billfold. The boy had bought an expensive walkie-talkie at the mall, but couldn't account for how he had paid for it. "He was a clever little thief," Hulin says. "He told me three different lies about how he got it."

The boy had not been doing well living with his mother. Bruntmyer says her son was prescribed amphetamines for hyperactivity from the time he was seven until he was 14, but the drugs didn't seem to calm him much. Rodney's usual response to frustration was either to hurt himself or to hurt others. Bruntmyer says that while he was in the foster home where he lived from age six to eight, he tried to kill himself by jumping through a plate glass window. The reason, apparently, was that he had failed to pass a test in a karate class.

Not long after rifling his father's wallet, Rodney got into more serious trouble: He tied up his little brother and masturbated on him. When his mother found out about it, she called the police, and Rodney was sent to Pegasus, a school for boys who had committed sexual offenses.

Bruntmyer says that when the school wanted to discharge him after a year, "I said, 'No way. Show me he is better.' " When Rodney wasn't released as he had anticipated, she says, he threatened to blow up his school and was confined in the Austin State Hospital for three days. When Rodney finally came home after a year and a half at Pegasus, he presented more problems. He stole a gun from beneath his mother's bed and took knives from the kitchen drawers and played with them. He rigged up wires through the stereo system and shocked his little brother.

He became more and more disturbed, disrupting classes and threatening his family and himself with harm. During the summer he was 16, his mother had him committed for 90 days to the Big Spring State Hospital. He seemed to mellow on the antidepressant Paxil, and when he came home to Amarillo in September 1994, he had a prescription for the drug and two sessions a week of therapy at a local clinic.

Apparently that wasn't enough; when high school started up again, he lasted only a month before being thrown out. He chewed out teachers and made scenes in class. Talented with computers, he took up a dare that he couldn't hack his way into the school's grading system. Finally, he was assigned to a special school for troubled kids. Rodney, though, refused to go. Instead, he began working at a Mr. Burger. He was doing well, his mother insists. He was not a bit of trouble.

"He was happy and he made his own money," she says now, "and was talking about getting an apartment when he was 17."

In the video that Bruntmyer's husband shot that Christmas of 1994, Rodney referred to having worked the previous night until 1:30 a.m. As he opened a box labeled a toaster oven, but that contained a winter jacket, his family kidded him that he would need to learn how to cook when he got his own apartment. He was a short kid, only five feet three inches tall, with a wispy mustache, scruffy hair and thick glasses.

Things didn't go as planned. A week after Christmas, Rodney was fired for making two long-distance calls on his employer's phone, one to his father and another to a counselor. "It was like a bombshell," Bruntmyer says. "I went to his counselor and begged him to put him somewhere. He had threatened to kill me. One minute you could be doing something with him, and he could be the best of kids, the most enjoyable. The child side of him would come out and he would laugh and play. And then the dark destructive side would come out, and he would threaten and try to hurt me. He wanted to pretend like he was tough, but he wasn't."

Out of a job, the boy would sleep all day and sneak out at night. The week after he lost his job, Bruntmyer noticed a fire in the front yard of a neighbor's house. The police were on the scene investigating. "I asked Rodney if he did it," she says, "and he swore he didn't. He was the best liar that they came by."

With his last paycheck, she says, he had bought a blowgun with darts. "We didn't mind it," says Bruntmyer. "He would shoot at a target in the garage." But she later learned Rodney also shot darts at a neighbor's dog. And once in jail, he told her about a computer disc on which he had written about other misdeeds, such as setting a fire under a dump truck to see if it would explode.

Bruntmyer decided to move back to Dallas, and on Sunday, January 22, 1995 drove there to arrange housing for her family. Her husband, a long-distance driver for a bus company, was gone to Colorado. She had left her 21-year-old stepson in charge, but, she says, he stayed at a friend's house, leaving the three Hulin children alone.

After watching horror movies until early in the morning, Rodney, then 16, persuaded Rynell, 13, to help him make Molotov cocktails. They took a storage can to a nearby convenience store and bought a dollar's worth of gasoline, then went to the garage and filled three or four soft drink bottles with gasoline and stuffed rags into them for wicks. Then they started walking the streets of their neighborhood, looking for a place to throw them. It was 3 a.m. and cold and there was snow on the ground.

According to the boys' statements to the police, after walking a block or so away from home, Rynell shook a bottle to saturate the wick, and Rodney lit it with a cigarette lighter. Rynell threw it over a fence; he said he did it because his brother "was kind of pressuring me." Rynell saw smoke, but couldn't see if the bomb had done any damage. Rodney threw a couple of more gas-filled bottles in the same place, then both boys returned home and Rynell went to bed. Rodney, though, made a few more bombs and went out and threw them. According to his statement, one landed on a roof and caught it aflame, but that may have been an exaggeration. According to an offense report, his bomb "caused a small fire in a pile of empty cans against the outside wall of the residence."

When the police came to investigate later that morning, they already had their suspicions. They went straight to Rodney Hulin's residence and woke up Rynell. Smelling gasoline on his hands, they decided to take him in. Rodney was arrested as he was climbing over the back fence. According to the police report, Rodney said, "I was accused of stealing beer and I flipped."

Being arrested at this point could have been to Rodney Hulin's benefit. After all, he had not yet committed a truly major crime -- or at least no crime in which another person had been physically injured -- and it was obvious that whatever treatment he was getting at home wasn't working. A month shy of his 17th birthday, he was still legally a juvenile (in Texas, as in most states, 17 is the age of majority for being tried as an adult), and so could have been sent to a serious rehabilitation program.

While Rodney lingered in the Randall County jail, the juvenile court debated whether he should be certified as an adult. Under section 54 of the Texas Family Code, a social and psychological study of the suspect must be made. The judge considers the juvenile's previous history, whether the crime is against a person or property, whether it was done in an aggressive and premeditated manner and whether a grand jury would be likely to indict. The sophistication and maturity of the juvenile and his previous record are also taken into account, and the protection of public safety must be weighed along with the likelihood of rehabilitation. There is a good deal of room for interpretation under these rules, but Rodney Hulin could not have picked a worse political and judicial climate in which to commit his crime.

George W. Bush had been elected governor the previous year, in part by accusing incumbent Ann Richards of supporting lenient paroles. The Texas Legislature echoed the law-and-order talk, passing laws that strengthened the hand of prosecutors in certifying juveniles as adults. Bush's election helped sweep in Republican judges who were talking the same tough line, and who acted on it. In 1994, the Texas adult prison system received 177 juvenile offenders. In 1995, when Hulin was arrested, that number had grown to 502. The following year, the number approached a thousand. Miscreants as young as 14 can now be certified for capital crimes, and those who are 15 can be certified for first-degree felonies -- not that any of these laws were needed to certify Hulin, given how close he was to 17.

The prosecutor who ended up with Rodney Hulin's case doesn't remember him. "I would have seen him twice," says Randall County Assistant District Attorney Harry Ingram, "a short period when we did the transfer hearing in juvenile court, and then again for five minutes in court for the plea bargain."

"But I do recall [that] from his past history and all the reports we did make a decision that he was a dangerous person and he did not need to be free on the streets," Ingram adds. "His parents may have seen him as a first offender, because nobody was hurt ... But he was not some sweet, innocent kid we threw to the wolves."

After he was certified as an adult, Rodney fired his juvenile court lawyer, and in her place the court appointed Seldon Hale, an Amarillo criminal lawyer deeply familiar with the options that his client faced. Hale had served as chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, the board that governs the Texas prison system, under Ann Richards in 1992.

"He was not what I call a bad buy," says Hale. "If I had been a judge and had known about him, I would have kept him in the county jail, made him work in the jail and cut him loose after six months [nearly the amount of time Hulin served while awaiting sentencing]."

But Hulin's choices boiled down to two: plead guilty to two charges of second-degree arson and be sentenced to eight years with the possibility of parole in two years, or take boot camp and five years probation, with two 15-year sentences hanging over him if he messed up.

He had a tough choice, says Hale: "He would not have done well in boot camp because he was not an athletic type of kid. Deferred probation is a tough deal, because if you screw up on the last day of probation, the judge can give you the full range of your sentence."

Boot camp would have been the least of Rodney's difficulties. The real question seemed to be whether he could stay out of trouble for five years. Rodney himself didn't seem to think so. By the time he entered his plea at the end of July 1995, he had served almost six months with few problems, and that time would be subtracted from his sentence. That left 18 months until he would be eligible for parole.

He took the eight years. Hale thought it might be the best choice. "There are literally hundreds of young men like him in the prison system," Hale says. "He struck me as street-smart. He had a persona of Mickey Rooney. He had a kind of swagger. I never would have thought he would have killed himself."

From the Randall County jail Rodney was sent to the Middleton Unit in Abilene, a diagnostic or transfer unit, where inmates are held to be interviewed, tested and classified for transfer somewhere else in the prison system. While in the Randall County jail, he had continued to take his antidepressant medication. But at Middleton that was taken away from him and not re-prescribed. At the end of October, he wrote his mother that he was working on his high school equivalency diploma, and that if he passed, he hoped to take college courses in the next unit to which he was assigned. He was hoping for parole by the following August. He liked his teacher and attended classes for three hours every morning. His job was as a dorm porter, sweeping, mopping and cleaning sinks and windows.

It was the last time Rodney would write optimistically from prison. No inmate is supposed to be kept in a diagnostic unit longer than two years, and younger offenders such as Rodney are supposed to be transferred out within three months, since it's thought to be unsafe to mix youthful inmates with older prisoners. It must have been relatively easy for the prison bureaucrats to figure out where best to send Rodney. Responding to national prison standards, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had cleared the Clemens Unit in Brazoria County of older violent offenders and was turning it into a minimum security prison with a thousand inmates, most of whom were to be 25 and under, with the youngest inmates to be segregated from the others. Rodney was going to be sent to what prisoners termed the "kiddie farm."

Two days after arriving at Clemens on November 13, he wrote his mother. "I'm living in a two man cell," he told her. "I'm living with a black teenager, 17 years old. He wants me to pay him $10 so he will not have to fight me. I really don't know what I'm going to do. The guards are trying to put me on the hoe squad, in the fields for five hours a day. I told them about my medical history but they don't care ... Mom, I'm really scared that I will not get to see you again, I'm scared that I may die in here."

The letter is dated Nov. 14-16, so it may have been written in the aftermath of what Rodney later claimed was a rape by his cellmate. No rape is mentioned in his letter, but it's unarguably sad. "I am crying right now," he wrote, "and I'm mentally and emotionally destroyed this moment. I now wish that I had taken my five years probation and boot camp."

On November 17 he wrote his father, saying that he was trying to get sent to a state hospital and get his job changed, and that he was scared he would die in prison. What he didn't say was that on that same day he had been examined by the prison physician for signs of rape. Rodney told the doctor that he had been forced to perform oral sex and then was penetrated anally. According to Rodney's medical records, there were two "vertical tears" in his rectum. The physician recommended a HIV test, which came back negative. Since Rodney was pressing charges against his alleged assailant, he was given another cellmate, a black youth who, Rodney claimed, also harassed him.

The Clemens Unit has unique problems in maintaining order among youthful offenders. Its officials say that young inmates often have a gladiator mentality that makes them difficult to manage. Like all adolescents, they're subject to mood swings.

Young white inmates may have an even tougher time, says the current Clemens warden, Terry Foster, because many of them, like Rodney Hulin, tend to be solitary operators. Many of the black and Hispanic youngsters, Foster says, come from gangs, which form a support system within prison. Gang members, Foster says, often expect to go to prison, and may even consider it a badge of honor. As part of that ethic, they resent being sent to the kiddie farm. According to prison officials, they may act violently so that they can get sent to a "real" prison.

Since Clemens officials say they're well aware of possible racial animosities, and of the violent tendencies of some of their young inmates, the question arises: Why was Hulin, a puny white kid five feet three inches tall and weighing 126 pounds, placed with a black cellmate who allegedly ended up raping him? It's a question no one in the current administration of the Clemens Unit can answer. The present warden, Terry Foster, has been on the job for two months. The new director of the Youth Offenders Program was not on the job when Hulin was in prison. The records of whatever investigation was done of Rodney's alleged rape were sent to the Huntsville and is out of the hands of the current Clemens administration. And lawyers for the TDCJ refuse to release their findings on Hulin's suicide, saying that as part of a criminal investigation it is protected from an open records request.

Perhaps it was just the grinding of a bureaucracy that did Rodney Hulin in. If an inmate has a problem, a complaint must be written and filed. The complaint must be reviewed by a committee. Almost as soon as he got to the Clemens Unit, Rodney was trying to get out. Citing his medical history, he asked to go to the psychiatric unit. But hundreds of inmates want to go to the psychiatric unit, and there are very few psychiatric beds and very few cells for protective custody, which are twice as expensive to operate as minimum security cells. The job of a prison warden, Foster says, is to manage the prisoners he's sent, not to create institutional headaches by sending them elsewhere.

According to a copy of a prison record obtained by Rodney's father, on December 12, 1995 a guard named Pablo Salazar filed a report that might have helped his son. He found that one inmate had taken Rodney's meal card, and that he was being threatened physically as well as sexually by yet another prisoner.

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."

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."

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.

"I told him, 'I love you with all my heart, but if you choose not to come home, tell [your grandfather] when you see him I love him, and tell him to take care of you.' " Maybe in Heaven, she seemed to be saying, her son would finally get the supervision he had long required.

(For a look at some of Rodney Hulin's jailhouse correspondence, check the story on the web at www.houstonpress.com.)

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