A federal jury in Wichita Falls, Tx., is expected to decide this week whether prison officials violated an inmate’s Eighth Amendment rights by failing to protect him from cruel and unusual punishment, the Houston Chronicle reports. The trial has become the flagship case in a national movement to stop prison rapes. The outcome, civil rights activists and criminal justice professors say, could be the starting point for reform.
For American Civil Liberties Union attorneys pursuing the case, it epitomizes the problems in Texas prisons despite reforms imposed by the U.S. Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. The law requires the gathering of national statistics on sexual assaults; the development of guidelines for states about how to address prisoner rape; the creation of a review panel to hold annual hearings; and grants to states to combat the problem. A 1999 federal court ruling found that sexual assault was a pervasive problem in Texas prisons. The ACLU and the California-based group Stop Prison Rape say the system has improved, but they receive more rape complaints from Texas inmates than from any other state. In 2004, inmates alleged 550 sexual assaults by other inmates in Texas. Mike Viesca, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman, said Texas prisons have a zero-tolerance policy regarding prison rape.