While accusations of misogyny in Texas have been highlighted more recently in the battle for abortion rights that has been unfolding across the state, the most vulnerable women — those incarcerated in Texas state prisons and county jails — have reported experiencing wide-ranging assault in a pattern that reveals a larger rape culture in Texas law enforcement.
In June, two women filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Corpus Christi against Live Oak County and three former jail guards with the Live Oak County Jail. According to their suit, the guards ran a “rape camp” at the jail, repeatedly raping and humiliating the two detainees awaiting trial as other guards looked on during an extended period of time.
The court documents state that Live Oak County guards Vincent Aguilar, Jaime Smith and Israel Charles Jr., forced the women to perform oral sex on each other and on the guards. They were also forced to shave their vulvas in front of the guards and perform other humiliating and dehumanizing acts. The guards reportedly told one plaintiff that she was their “sex slave or whatever they wanted her to be.”
But what originally sounded like one isolated series of incidents confined to one particular county jail in Texas is proving to be part of a much larger pattern of sexual violence against women prisoners and detainees across Texas county jails at the hands of correctional officers and prison guards.
Another jailer in Harris County is facing charges after his alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl during her two months in Houston’s Harris County Juvenile Justice Center was caught on video. The parents of the girl sued Harris County; Thomas Brooks, director of its juvenile probation department; and former correctional officer Robert Robinson.
The parents’ suit alleges that Robinson repeatedly visited the victim up to three times a week despite the fact that he was assigned to the boys unit at the jail. Robinson allegedly offered the girl food and candy in exchange for sexual acts before he raped her on the night of her transfer out of the jail. The cases join others across Texas in a series of systematic abuses at the hands of prison guards and other law enforcement officers.
A 2003 law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, requires certain standards for county jails, including the separation of minors from the general population and the completion of administrative or criminal investigations for all allegations of sexual abuse.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards provides administrative oversight to ensure the federal law is upheld. The commission approves operating policies at Texas county jails. According to their minimum standards, a prisoner can report an assault to anyone they feel comfortable with, including other prisoners, who can then report it to another authority as part of a grievance process. A prisoner can also file a written report for the county sheriff. The commission relays all information regarding allegations of rape to other law enforcement agencies, according to a spokesman.
But in many cases, there are only a few officers on duty at county jails, and the only person a victim may be able to report their sexual assault to is the same person who assaulted them. Overall, county sheriffs rarely prosecute in criminal investigations. It’s a chain-of-command structure that many advocates say is also at the root of the rampant issue of sexual assault in the U.S. military.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) authored a bill in May that attempts to take sexual assault prosecutions out of the hands of the accused’s chain of command, and despite opposition, it’s exactly the type of solution that may be needed in Texas county jails.
Michelle Smith, a prisoner’s rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), said she was familiar with a recent case of a transgender woman who was unable to report her sexual assault because she could only speak Spanish, and the only other Spanish-speaking authority at the jail was her attacker.
The Texas Jails Project is a volunteer organization that works with families of prisoners to improve conditions for those held in Texas county jails. Director Diana Claitor told Truthout that most of the reporting on rape and sexual assault the organization gets comes from family members of prisoners who can’t or don’t know how to report their rape from inside the jail. Claitor thinks county sheriffs are too powerful and can’t be trusted to prosecute in criminal investigations regarding fellow law enforcement officers.
“It’s law enforcement investigating law enforcement. They’re all connected. They all have common beliefs. They too often are seeing the people they’re investigating as fellow law enforcement and not as possible perpetrators. They see them as allies,” Claitor said.
Claitor expressed little faith in the Texas Rangers’ ability to investigate and prosecute sexual assault and rape in Texas county jails after allegations have surfaced.
But the sexual abuse of women in Texas isn’t confined to county jails and state prisons. In fact, a woman in Texas doesn’t even need to be sent to a county jail before she can be sexually assaulted at the hands of law enforcement. Videos have recently surfaced of two separate incidents in Dallas and just outside Houston involving Texas State Troopers performing illegal body cavity searches of women pulled over on routine traffic stops.
In two separate stops, state troopers accused the drivers of having marijuana, which they did not, and then called in a female officer who penetrated the vagina and the rectum of the women involved with a pair of gloves. In one case, the female officer did not change gloves in between probing two women.
The prohibited practice was performed in the same manner in separate regions of the state, meaning there might be an unwritten departmental policy encouraging the use of the searches, TCRP Director Jim Harrington told the New York Daily News.
The Texas rangers are reviewing the cases, but plaintiffs in one case said it took the rangers more than two months to respond initially, and that it wasn’t until the news media started covering the cases that she received a response.
The rangers and the state troopers are divisions of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which declined Truthout’s request for comment.