Making a Point
On January 22, 1996, Rodney Hulin was found hanging in his jail cell. The 17-year-old claimed he had been repeatedly raped in prison, and when this didn't stop, he decided to die. The lawsuit his family and the ACLU filed made national news: The Houston Press, The New York Times and The Nation all ran stories. Those outraged by his death said that even though he was a felon, he didn't deserve to be raped; the state should have kept him safe.
This spring brought some closure to the case. George W. Bush signed a settlement April 26, cutting a $215,000 check from the governor's discretionary fund.
"I'm hoping it'll wake people up enough to save people," says Rodney's mother, Linda Bruntmyer. "To let them know that this does happen in the prison system. Teach them that it can happen."
Hulin's relatives took the $215,000 because it's the largest amount they could have received and gotten the money now, says the family attorney Robert Rosenberg. If they had wanted more than $300,000, the state could have appealed and taken a lot of time to send the check. The family wanted to be finished.
"In terms of prison litigation that's an enormous amount of money," Rosenberg says. "They made their point. That amount is big enough that it is an acknowledgement that a wrong has been committed. It wasn't a nuisance value -- that's usually a few thousand dollars saying, 'Here, go away.' "
Still, the state admits no wrongdoing, says Carl Reynolds, general counsel for the state of Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
And since Hulin's death, prison policies haven't changed. So there's no guarantee that this same thing won't happen again.
Rodney Daniel Hulin walked into the Randall County jail in Canyon, Texas, a small-time arsonist convicted of throwing Molotov cocktails at a neighbor's house. In 1995 his sentence was eight years, but he figured he'd be out in a year and a half with good behavior.
The prison system started making mistakes with Rodney as soon as he got there, says attorney Rosenberg. Rodney had been in a mental institution, but they classified him as psychologically sound; without conducting a psychiatric evaluation, they took him off his antidepressants.
Rodney complained that he was depressed; they told him he was just hot. Rodney said he needed his Paxil; prison doctor Ronald Davis said he had never heard of Paxil.
Less than a month after he arrived at the Clemens unit in Brazoria, Rodney claimed he was raped. The physician's assistant found tears in his rectum and noted that the muscle tone was loose. He didn't perform a rape test, but he gave Rodney an AIDS test. The physician's assistant said Rodney could just be constipated and gave him Metamucil.
Raped twice more, Rodney made three requests to be placed in protective custody. They were all denied.
Rodney never was a good kid. He used to twist his brother's and sister's ankles trying to break their legs. He wired his little brother to the stereo trying to electrocute him (Rynell has scars as thick as a pencil on his arms). Rodney killed the neighbor's cat with a blowgun. He broke a neighbor boy's arm.
Rodney tied his brother up and masturbated on him. When he was taken to the juvenile detention center, he masturbated in front of other boys.
After his mom found him dancing with a knife blade to his belly, she tried to get him help. At Big Springs State Hospital, his diagnosis included: severe conduct disorder, personality disorder, multiple personality disorder, depression, emotionally disturbed and identity abuse.
In prison, Rodney asked for psychiatric help. Without having met him, the psychologist at Clemens said he didn't need any. The social worker, Barbara Stubbs, referred Rodney to the psychologist; the chart says Rodney "didn't show" for his appointment. He met with Stubbs five minutes after his scheduled appointment. They were in the same clinic -- why didn't she walk him down the hall, his lawyer asks. Why wasn't he ever rescheduled?
Rodney went to the infirmary with bruises on his body. He said other inmates were beating him up. He sent his mother his broken glasses and said he needed $10 a week to pay his cell mate to keep from getting hurt.
Then he wrote his parents that he had been raped.
Linda Bruntmyer called the warden, and he told her inmates rape each other and her son needed to be a big boy, she remembers. She told him to go to hell and hung up.
Her husband took their other kids to a motel. She told Rodney to pray.
The warden at the time, James Byrd, said an investigation couldn't be conducted because Rodney refused to name his attacker. Not true. An interoffice memo from Officer Pablo Salazar says that Rodney claimed he was threatened physically and sexually by his cell mate; he names names and gives details. (Salazar gave the memo to Rosenberg, himself. Initially, the state refused to recognize it as evidence.) Also, the medical records say Rodney told the physician's assistant it was his cell mate who attacked him. And he told three guards and the investigator for his second rape that his cell mate attacked him.
"It's easy to determine who his cell mate is," Rosenberg says. "He only had one."
The investigator said Rodney was lying because he was telling two different stories. Once he said he was forced to have anal sex; another time he said he was forced to have oral sex. He said Rodney wasn't consistent.
But Rodney was talking about two different rapes on two different days.
Rodney's father, Rodney James Hulin, didn't believe his boy either at first. In all of his psychiatric records, Rodney claims his father made kiddie porn and forced him to have anal and oral sex when he was three and 11. His dad says that's all lies; Rodney lied a lot.
Whether Rodney was raped or not is not the big issue, Rosenberg says. What's more important is how the prison responded to Rodney saying he was raped.
They didn't perform a rape test; they didn't conduct an investigation after the first rape, only the second; and they didn't report the rape to the district attorney.
Rape is a felony, Rosenberg says. No matter where it happens.
On January 26, 1996, Rodney was moved to the C-line with other difficult prisoners for refusing to work. Maybe he refused to work because it was the only way he could get the protective custody no one would give him, his mother says.
He wrote a letter "to all my family that I ever knew," saying that he couldn't live life being mistreated, lied to and stolen from. "Most of all being hurt." He said he was sorry to end his life but if he didn't do it himself, he was sure someone else would. He wrote one-line notes to each of his family members -- telling his brother to stay out of trouble and telling his parents that he forgave them.
About 10:20 p.m. Rodney tied a bed sheet around his locker box and around his neck. He passed a note to the guy in the next cell saying to give it to the guard in five minutes.
The guard took the note but didn't read it until he finished his rounds. When he did read it, he ran to Rodney's cell block and saw him hanging from the ceiling. One guard got a video camera and taped the guards cutting him down. After CPR Rodney started breathing, but the brain damage was too bad.
The prison called his mom at 11:30 the next morning and said it was "nothing serious" but her son was in intensive care after trying to kill himself.
"I hung up the phone and I went screaming," she says. Then she packed up her family and drove to the University of TexasMedical Branch Hospital in Galveston.
Rodney hung on for four months until he caught pneumonia. On April 22, 1996, Rodney was approved for House Bill '93 Special Needs Parole after he no longer needed it. Rodney's 18th birthday passed, and he didn't even notice.
He was scheduled to go to his mom's house in San Angelo a week before he died. The hospice nurse was hired, and there were a dozen red roses waiting in his room, his mom says. Rodney always loved roses.
When the phone rang a little after midnight, his mother knew he wasn't going to make it.
His family filed a civil suit against Warden James Byrd (now deceased) and the state. The federal magistrate who presided over the December settlement hearing strongly encouraged the state to settle. The state probably would have lost the case, says Carl Reynolds, general counsel for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Rodney was young, he didn't die right away -- and their key witness, the warden, was dead.
Rodney's case hasn't really changed anything, Reynolds says. No policies have been rewritten, although they are being enforced more strictly, he says.
"Rodney's case illustrates some of the problems that existed in the way we were handling requests for protective custody in the past," Reynolds says. In fact, Rodney was used as an example of how the state fails prisoners who ask for protective custody in the landmark David Ruiz case on the civil rights of Texas prisoners.
Rosenberg says protective policies were already in place when Rodney was in prison but just weren't followed. The state acts like rape is an acceptable punishment for prisoners, Rosenberg says.
"We took this case to discipline the people that screwed up so that this doesn't happen again," says Jay Jacobson, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. But he knows it will happen again. Prisoners will be raped and will ask for help and will not get it. But someday maybe that will change.
"Our goal is to get prison officials to take civil liberties seriously and not work around them," Jacobson says.
Rodney Hulin's parents lost their son, but they got a little more cash. His mom put her share of the money in a trust fund for Elizabeth, the nine-month-old baby her daughter left her to raise.
Rodney's father still says good morning to his son and talks to him every day. He has pictures of Rodney, arm slung around him, in every room. He's using his share of the settlement to reopen his alligator leather-craft shop -- Rodney was planning on working in it with him. After that, his father is thinking about opening a Cajun/Creole restaurant named Rodney D's.
Rodney's dad wants to move to Canada because he thinks there's too many laws and lawmakers in Texas. He thinks Canada will be more civilized.
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.