RALEIGH — Even in prison, Dedric McDaniels could get the relaxer he needs to make his long hair straight and feminine.
Since he was 11, the New Bern native has thought of himself as transgender, a girl trapped in a male body. Now 35, McDaniels would be easy to mistake for a woman, especially when poured into a pair of his skinny jeans.
That made him a target for unwanted attention during the nearly six years he served in North Carolina's prison system for a drug conviction. In prison after prison, McDaniels said, he was harassed and assaulted by other inmates seeking sex.
Sometimes, he said, his tormentors were the very correctional officers who were supposed to help keep him safe.
One of those officers, Sgt. Ricky Campbell, is now awaiting trial on a felony charge of sexual activity by a custodian, punishable by up to two years in prison.
At a minimum security prison outside Lumberton last year, McDaniels said, the sergeant cornered him in a bathroom one Saturday afternoon and ordered him to perform oral sex.
"Penitentiary is a different world," said McDaniels, who was released on parole Oct. 1. "A sergeant with three stripes, his word is gold. If I didn't do as he said, he could have written me up for nothing, had me thrown into the hole. He could have said I hit him and had me arrested. Nobody's going to take my word over his."
That is why after it was over, McDaniels returned to his bunk, put a sample of the officer's DNA into a paper cup, and sealed it inside a latex glove.
"There's not much to do in prison, so I watched a lot of CSI," McDaniels said. "I knew that unless I had proof, nothing would happen to him."
A Correction employee since 1992, Campbell could not be reached for comment. His lawyer, Danny Britt of Lumberton, did not respond to messages left at his office.
83 substantiated cases
The Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law passed in 2003, requires states to report annually to the U.S. Justice Department on incidents of sexual violence in prisons and jails. The law also dictates that states must have "zero tolerance" for employees who abuse inmates.
In the last three years, officials at the N.C. Department of Correction have investigated 835 reports of sexual misconduct and harassment by Correction employees. Of those, 83 cases were substantiated by the state as being true.
The federal law, known by its acronym PREA, does not require prison systems to disclose details about those cases. North Carolina officials have denied requests from The News & Observer for such information, citing the need to protect the privacy of the inmates.
Michele Luecking-Sunman, an attorney at N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, said her staff has lawsuits pending in state and federal court on behalf of 15 female inmates who say they were raped or sexually assaulted by Correction staff. The nonprofit legal aid group also filed a claim on behalf of McDaniels, seeking financial compensation for the assault he alleges.
Jennie Lancaster, chief operating officer and the prison system's point person on PREA compliance, said that in an organization with 40,000 inmates and more than 20,000 employees there will inevitably be cases of abuse and fraternization.
The majority of reported cases involve male staff at women's prisons. But Correction officials regularly receive reports of abuse and harassment between employees and inmates of the same sex.
"It doesn't matter if it's an inmate's word against an employee's word, we're going to investigate," said Lancaster, a 34-year veteran of the state prison system. "When you do that, the first thing you're trying to determine is whether there has been undue familiarity taking place, much less the breaking of the law. If we think a criminal act has taken place, we contact local law enforcement or the SBI."
Evidence often lacking
Luecking-Sunman said a major concern was for the nine out of 10 inmates who report being assaulted only to have the prison's internal investigation find insufficient evidence to substantiate the claim.
"It's hard to prove an officer said something or did something when it's the inmate's word against the officer's word," she said. "And then what often happens is the inmate gets disciplined for filing a false report. That completely deters many inmates from making a PREA report."
No data were immediately available as to how many Correction employees have been criminally charged with sexually assaulting inmates in recent years. But Lancaster acknowledged that many employees investigated for "undue familiarity" with inmates resign without facing prosecution.
Even when there is evidence of sexual misconduct, Lancaster said, local district attorneys sometimes hesitate to pursue criminal charges against prison staff if the sexual encounter was deemed "consensual."
The state law under which Campbell is charged specifically says it doesn't matter whether the sex was consensual, because of the immense power and influence prison guards have over those in custody.
'We are responsible'
"We are responsible for the care and custody of these offenders," Lancaster said. "We also have a position of power and authority over offenders. There's absolutely no excuse for, or defense for, not maintaining your professional working relationship."
New correctional officers in North Carolina receive four hours of training on sexual assault and harassment. Once on the job, officers receive an annual review of the material.
McDaniels said he knows other inmates who were sexually victimized behind bars but who never filed a complaint for fear of retaliation or being labeled a snitch.
"There are a lot of people still inside going through what I went through," he said. "It needs to stop."
McDaniels is quick to admit that he is no choirboy.
First incarcerated at age 17, he has a record of at least two dozen convictions going back to 1991. All were for nonviolent offenses such as breaking and entering, larceny, credit card fraud and forgery.
His most recent stretch was for two 2004 convictions for possession of crack cocaine in Craven County. Because of his long history of run-ins with the law, prosecutors also charged McDaniels as a habitual felon, resulting in a prison sentence of nearly eight years.
His prison record shows he was cited for five rules infractions, including gambling, engaging in a sexual act and possession of contraband.
McDaniels, who describes himself as a "flamboyant homosexual," said that contraband was a pair of G-string panties he had crafted for himself out of a black stocking hat.
"I can't hide who I am," McDaniels said. "I shouldn't have to. I was born this way."
Lancaster said that safeguarding an inmate like McDaniels can be challenging.
"I've seen a lot of contraband in my 34 years, but I have never seen G-strings on a male inmate," she said. "Honestly, when you have an offender like him, where you know it's a fine line between him being a victim, and his clearly being seen as that, and on the other hand, what his risk behaviors might be by his drawing attention to himself."
Dr. Terry A. Kupers, a former prison psychiatrist from California who has written extensively about the issue of sexual violence against inmates, said housing people such as McDaniels in a general prison population full of "predators" all but ensures they will be victimized.
"It's predictable that he was going to be sexually assaulted," said Kupers, who has testified before Congress on the issue of prison rape. "It is the duty of prison administrators to protect these individuals."
Isolating gays, bisexuals
In some prison systems, Kupers said, there are special units for transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual inmates to better protect them.
Lancaster said that in North Carolina, inmates are housed based on their "genital identity" but that administrators do their best to protect them. Transferring a prisoner to a new facility is one way to try to keep an inmate out of trouble, she said.
McDaniels' record shows he was transferred 23 times in less than six years.
"Does it cause the inmate more difficulty and does it cause the department more difficulty? Yes it does," Lancaster said. "That's why you try to keep your eye on them and ... you don't wait until the problems blow up around you to deal with it. But there's not a good solution to it."
A frequent target
Almost from the start of his incarceration in 2004, McDaniels said, he was targeted by both inmates and staff.
"The way I look, the way my body looks, I got a lot of unwanted attention," he said.
One night at Pamlico Correctional Institution in 2005, McDaniels said he awoke when three inmates somehow entered his locked cell and tried to sexually assault him. He said he screamed for help and managed to escape into the outside corridor.
At Lumberton Correctional Institution in 2006, he said an inmate assaulted him in the group shower. He was later attacked by an inmate at Hyde Correctional Institution.
Each time he reported being harassed or assaulted, McDaniels said prison officials simply transferred him.
At Wake Correctional Institution, McDaniels said, a male correctional officer made sexual advances on him.
"Every time I was in the shower, he would come in there and stare at me and talk about how I looked," McDaniels said.
McDaniels filed a written grievance against the officer in August 2009. Records show the officer denied "doing anything inappropriate" and the prison superintendent recommended "no further action."
The day after he filed the grievance against the officer at Wake, McDaniels was moved to the minimum security prison camp in Lumberton, where he was assigned to be a janitor.
Incident at Lumberton
On Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009, McDaniels said, Sgt. Campbell called him to his office and asked him to clean the staff rest room. Once he was in the rest room, McDaniels said, Campbell entered behind him, locked the door and began unfastening his uniform pants.
McDaniels said that he initially said no but that the officer insisted.
After the encounter, McDaniels kept the cup holding the DNA sample in a brown paper bag until Monday morning, when the prison superintendent returned to work. McDaniels then went to see the boss and told him what happened.
"He asked me if I had any proof," McDaniels said. "I held up the paper bag and told him what was in it. I tried to hand it to him, but he didn't want to touch it. He just told me to set it on his desk."
The superintendent called the Robeson County Sheriff's Department, which sent two deputies to take McDaniels' statement. The prison also launched an internal investigation. Two days later, on Sept. 30, 2009, Campbell resigned. He was arrested Dec. 14, according to court records.
Joseph Osman, the Robeson County prosecutor assigned to the case, said he could not discuss the details of McDaniels' account before Campbell's trial, which has not been scheduled. But he did confirm that there was "physical evidence" in the case. The next court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 10.
McDaniels, who now works at a Raleigh fast-food restaurant, said he looks forward to taking the witness stand against Campbell.
"Just because I'm a convict, just because I'm a homosexual, doesn't mean I deserve to be assaulted," he said. "I'm a human being, and no still means no."
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