After five and a half years as an employee in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Kenneth Williams knows that in prison each minute of visitation time is a precious commodity. A former guard who is now a laundry manager at the Jester III unit in Richmond, Williams has been threatened by inmates and visitors over minor misunderstandings.
"Working for the system, I know how things can go bad," he says.
Just how bad, Williams never suspected -- that is, until someone close to him began serving time in a TDCJ correctional facility. When Williams paid his first visit to the inmate, he got into a brief argument with a guard over whether he had 10 minutes of visitation time left. For his part, Williams decided to forget about the incident. So did his friend, Thomas Lee Johnson, who was then an inmate at the prison unit in Diboll in East Texas.
TDCJ took an extraordinary interest in the visit. Before long, Williams' superiors had discovered -- and then shared with others -- much more about the 28-year-old Williams than he wanted anyone at work to know. And, though Williams has been ordered to cease communication with his friend, TDCJ is still digging into his personal life. They have placed Williams under an internal affairs investigation for possible violation of a TDCJ policy that prohibits employees from establishing relationships with inmates.
But Williams maintains the investigation was motivated by a single fact that prison officials worked hard to uncover, yet now seem unable to live with: Kenneth Williams is gay and his lover is the inmate, Thomas Johnson.
"What they're saying I have done is ridiculous," says Williams, a trim Gulf War veteran with a button-down manner. "One thing about being a homosexual in an environment like this is that the inmates aren't the problem. It's mostly the officials that I feared coming out to. That's one reason why I've always said I hope they never find out I'm gay."
But they did, and according to Williams, this is how it happened:
Last December, Thomas Johnson pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge and was sentenced to 15 years in TDCJ. After six months in Harris County Jail, Johnson was transferred to the Diboll unit in late May. While TDCJ rules are clear that prison employees cannot begin a relationship of any kind with inmates, there is no policy regarding two people who, in the course of their friendship, find themselves on opposite sides of the bars.
So, to be safe, Williams -- even though he worked at a different unit than the one where his friend was incarcerated -- went to see Lepher Jenkins, senior warden of the four Jester units. Williams told Jenkins that his "godbrother" and roommate, Thomas Johnson, was at Diboll. Williams explained that he and Johnson were old friends and that they had started a home remodeling business together. He asked Jenkins if it would be permissible to visit and write to his friend. He even offered to prepare a statement saying he knew Johnson. Jenkins told him that the statement wasn't necessary and that he was perfectly in his right to visit. (Jenkins and other TDCJ officials mentioned in this story did not respond to calls from the Press.)
A week later, Williams brought Johnson's brother, also named Kenneth, to Diboll for a visit. By Williams' watch, about 10 minutes of the two-hour visit remained when the guard announced it was time to say goodbye. Williams admits to raising a bit of a stink by asking to see a duty officer. When the officer was equally adamant that it was time to go, Williams left to avoid further confrontation.
That night in his cell, Thomas Johnson received a visit from the duty officer, who asked if the man who came to visit that afternoon worked for TDCJ. "Yes," Johnson answered. "Why, was there a problem?"
"No," the officer said. "I was just wondering because he said he knew the visiting policy."
Soon after, Williams was summoned to see Charles Pelz, the Jester III warden. Pelz said he'd heard about the disagreement over the visitation time at Diboll. Williams told Pelz it was no big deal and that he had forgotten the incident. After a few minutes, Pelz blurted out, "Your sexual preference is your personal business." Williams was stunned. He says he tried to return the talk to visitation policy, but Pelz ignored him and repeated the comment.
Pelz also produced what he said were copies of letters that Williams and Johnson had written to each other. "I've got something here that tells me there might be something going on between you and this inmate, Johnson," he said. Williams asked to see the letters, but Pelz wouldn't let him. He did say that the letters had come from Diboll, where the warden had intercepted Johnson's incoming and outgoing mail, made copies and forwarded the most incriminating ones to Pelz and Jenkins at Jester.
"Isn't this your handwriting?" Pelz asked at one point, holding up a credit application for a small business loan that Williams had sent to Johnson. "It's the same writing as on the others, and we'll get a handwriting expert in here if we need to."
Williams was intimidated by Pelz' attitude. While the warden told him that the letters and the little chat they'd had would remain confidential, Williams was not reassured. "I didn't know what he was going to do with that information," he says. "He had the upper hand. I just wanted to get out of that office."
Once he did, things got worse. First, Williams' laundry room supervisor received a call from Pelz. He then asked Williams to tell a coworker that he wanted to see her. Later, the coworker, visibly upset, approached Williams and asked to speak to him.
"He asked me if I knew you were gay," the coworker told Williams. "He told me that Warden Pelz called and said that you were going with an inmate and that we were all supposed to watch you." Williams has since discovered that the nature of his sex life has also been divulged to people who work for him, including inmates.
"I was sent to get one inmate and when he came back, he said, 'What's going on?' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Those people are trying to get you. They asked me what you're doing with these inmates back here.'"
"It was all because they found out I was gay and had a lover. They think if you're gay, you're going to be sleeping with an inmate."
Though he enjoys his job and has a spotless personnel record, Williams says he has never felt comfortable being a gay man working in the state prison system. Having such personal information passed around his place of employment by a superior -- though, he says, "I never admitted or denied I was gay" -- has only reinforced his discomfort.
A week after his "outing," a humiliated Williams filed a TDCJ employee grievance, alleging sexual harassment and defamation of character. The grievance was rejected by Jenkins and again at the regional level. The final stop was the desk of Institutional Division director Wayne Scott. Scott also dismissed the complaint, saying "There is no indication that Warden Pelz ... acted in less than a professional manner." He also refused to order the letters returned and denied Williams' request for a transfer.
While his grievance was winding through the system, Williams received two more pieces of bad news. Jenkins told Williams he was being placed under investigation for violation of PD 21, no. 42, a policy prohibiting the "establishing" of relations between employees and inmates -- despite the confiscated letters that clearly indicate Williams and Johnson had known each other for some time.
According to Williams, the investigation by TDCJ Lieutenant Thomas Casey is short on fact-finding and long on intimidation. Williams says Casey has threatened him with possible termination unless Williams admits that he, in fact, admitted to Jenkins that he was gay and was having a relationship with an inmate. Casey accused Williams of lying and, like Pelz, produced copies of letters while refusing to show them to Williams.
But the worst came exactly one month after Williams asked Lepher Jenkins' permission to visit Thomas Johnson. On July 7, Jenkins ordered Williams to "cease all correspondence with Johnson and his family." Williams was not even allowed to write a letter of explanation to Johnson, who has since been inexplicably transferred across the state to the LaMesa prison unit, about 30 miles southwest of Lubbock.
Jenkins' order was the final straw. Last month, Williams filed a federal suit against TDCJ, alleging denial of freedom of speech and association. Williams is also charging TDCJ with harassment and discrimination.
"They're trying to force me to resign," he says. "That's what they do with women they catch straight-up involved with inmates. But I feel this internal affairs investigation is in retaliation of my grievance.
"This whole ordeal is so... I can't even describe how it makes me feel, because I'm not a bad employee. I do my job."
A TDCJ spokesperson said the department does not comment on employee grievances or pending lawsuits.
Eric Sunde, Williams' attorney, says that pre-existing employee-inmate relationships are not uncommon in TDCJ, particularly in the Houston area. He says TDCJ's unwritten policy is to insure that the employee maintains a professional attitude around the inmate. "Based upon the word of the inmate, TDCJ takes the position that there is no further problem. In this case, that did not occur. The only thing that makes this different is that this is a gay relationship."
Meanwhile, out in West Texas, Thomas Johnson can only speculate on why he has not heard from his lover, who used to write each day and visit every week. In a letter to the Press, Johnson angrily described how, "because [we're] gay ... not only are we prohibited from seeing each other, we cannot even communicate."
Certainly, Kenneth Williams knows how hard that can be. "I see inmates everyday who are away from their loved ones," he says. "I know what he's going through.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.