Thirty years ago, David Ruiz and other Texas prisoners filed what would become what was one of the most important lawsuits ever filed in this state. In a 1980 landmark opinion in the case of Ruiz v. Estelle, U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice wrote that “it is impossible for a written opinion to convey the pernicious conditions and the pain and degradation which ordinary inmates suffer within TDC prison walls.” Now after decades of litigation, federal oversight of the Texas prisons will come to an end. The prisoners’ lawyers had been preparing a motion to continue jurisdiction in the case based on evidence developed in the past six months. But after considering the uncertainties of further litigation and based on commitments made by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, they decided not to do so. “It was a difficult decision,” Donna Brorby, lead counsel for the prisoners, said in a statement. “We reviewed thousands of pages of documents and … inspected eight maximum security prisons. We found improvements in the areas currently under court jurisdiction. But we also found clear evidence of continuing violations’ of prisoners’ constitutional rights in the form of malicious and illegal force by officers, a failure to protect prisoners from preventable rape and other victimization by prisoners, mutual abuse between prisoners and officers, and dehumanizing deprivations in maximum security 24-hour lock up.” Now that the Ruiz lawsuit has officially ended, the state has agreed to begin a two-year project with the National Institute of Corrections to further scrutinize and improve practices and conditions related to the use of force, protection of prisoners, and administrative segregation. But Brorby concluded her statement with a cautionary note: “The Texas prisons will never be safe and reasonable places for those who must live in them until the citizens of Texas exercise their rights and make the system more transparent so they know what is happening inside their prisons.”
It’s never been easy to be a human rights activist in Guatemala (See “Still Searching,” June 7), but in recent months it’s become more difficult than at any time since the signing of the 1996 peace accords (officially known as the agreement for “A Firm and Lasting Peace”) put an end to over three decades of civil war. Earlier this month a clandestine group that activists say is linked to the army high command faxed a death threat to several of the country’s leading human rights organizations. The fax named 11 prominent human rights activists, lawyers, and journalists that the group said would soon be killed. Among those named were attorney Frank La Rue, who is currently representing indigenous communities in genocide cases against former the former president of Guatemala, General Efraín Ríos Montt–currently the president of the Congress–and Helen Mack, whose sister, anthropologist Myrna Mack was stabbed to death in 1990. Ever since, Mack has been fighting to see the army officials who ordered her sister’s killing finally brought to justice. Last month, a leading member of the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation, was shot to death. Earlier this year, a group of forensic anthropologists whose work is instrumental to prosecuting genocide cases, received a series of death threats; several have since gone into exile. Recently the U.N. Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, Hina Jilani, visited the country. The fax from the clandestine group, which was signed “Guatemaltecos de Verdad” (True Guatemalans), refers to her visit and accuses the human rights activists of being enemies to the country, in language reminiscent of that used by hardline officials during the war.