With more than a decade to get into compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, Texas Governor Rick Perry is crying foul. Stopping prison rape in Texas, you see, is “impossible,” according to Perry, who says that Texas prisons can’t get into compliance or even provide an assurance that they’re working on the issue by the May 15 deadline. Given that Texas has been named the prison rape capital of the United States, it’s unsettling to hear that the state’s governor has so little interest in addressing the issue, which leaves 200,000 prisoners nationwide victimized annually, including men, women and children in a variety of prison settings.
PREA was a direct result of growing awareness and activism around prison rape, a serious issue that, while it may be made into the stuff of jokes in some settings, is no laughing matter. Prisoner-on-prisoner sexual assault, coercion, rape and physical assault are alarmingly common, as are guard-on-prisoner interactions of a similar nature. Take the case of “anonymous,” a transgender woman in Texas who was forced into a men’s prison, where she endured endless torment that should have been prevented under PREA — and as a basic human rights issue.
Lawmakers provided a decade for states to get into compliance with the law, and they specifically planned for states like Texas, which have a very large incarcerated population and a very conservative government that might not make prison rape a priority. A commission came up with a set of firm regulations in 2012 and provided two years for states to get into compliance with basic requirements like separating minors from the adult population and not allowing opposite-gender guards to oversee inmates. However, for states who couldn’t comply, legislators and rulemakers built in a grace period. If states can provide an “assurance” that they’re working on prison rape, backed by a budget of at least 5 percent of their federal prison funds, they’ll satisfy the standards. For now.
Perry, however, claims that even this is too difficult for him. While PREA was passed with bipartisan support and has been largely adopted and supported across the country, Perry has consistently resisted it. In a letter sent to the Department of Justice, he complained about the standards, citing “operational realities” that made it unfeasible for Texas to apply the standards, and he encouraged other governors to follow suit with his refusal to comply. His insistence that justice for Texas prisoners is simply too expensive isn’t sitting well with prison reform advocates who have been working on conditions in Texas prisons for decades.
Perry claims that staffing requirements are too expensive, and that PREA conflicts with regional laws designed to address prison rape, in addition to laws regarding criminal responsibility. However, with Texas rapidly barreling towards a deadline it’s willfully ignoring, the state is opening itself wide to potentially extremely costly lawsuits from inmates who may sue on civil rights grounds. The “savings” provided by refusing to comply with the law may be canceled out by the cost of defending multiple suits across the justice system.
Some of the most violent, dangerous prisons in the nation are in Texas, and conditions are even worse for LGBQT inmates. That’s why PREA was passed: to create a clear national standard for addressing and eliminating prison rape in the United States, addressing a key human rights issue and national shame. If Perry continues to dig in his heels on the issue, his state’s prison rape epidemic is on him.
Photo credit: Ed Schipul.