Tablet Opinion

Texas should abide by law to help stop prison rapes

It is shameful for Gov. Rick Perry to use the awful crime of rape as a political football.

On March 28, Perry wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder saying he refused to certify Texas prisons’ compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which will be 11 years old in September.

Perry claimed the law’s requirements are too burdensome, and Texas already gets the job done with home-grown policies.

But Perry couldn’t be further from the gruesome truth. Texas leads the nation in prison sexual assault.

We have four of the 10 worst prisons in the U.S. — more than any other state. Further, although Texas only has five state-level juvenile facilities, one ranks seventh in the nation for sexual assault; 22.4 percent of the youths report being victimized.

Clearly, Texas’ home-grown policies have failed.

Part of the problem stems from underfunding. In 1978, Texas prisons held 24,575 inmates; now they hold more than 152,000.

The increase was largely due to the Legislature’s appetite for creating new, low-level felonies. Half the people who go to prison today are sentenced to two years or less.

The overwhelming majority of all new prisoners were convicted of nonviolent property or drug offenses.

But the budget has not kept up with the population. One result has been low salaries for correctional officers — starting at $27,000 and capped at $37,000 — so staffing continually suffers significant shortages and turnover.

That leaves fewer and less experienced officers to provide security, which makes everyone less safe.

Relatedly, Perry touts Texas’ creation of a “PREA Ombudsman” to investigate and resolve inmate complaints of sexual assault, but the PREA Ombudsman only employs three staff members, which is obviously far too few to adequately review the hundreds of sexual assault incidents reported every year.

Lance Lowry, president of the union for Texas Depatment of Criminal Justice correctional officers, criticized Perry’s letter to Holder, saying most PREA regulations could easily be met if Texas prisons were not understaffed by 3,000 officers.

Lowry has said under-staffing plagues the agency, and he primarily attributes it to low salaries.

Even with the staff that’s available, Texas refuses to adopt common-sense policies. For example, Perry’s letter complains that PREA requires the state to audit prisons every three years, but also admits no Texas prisons have ever been audited.

Perry balks at the notion of separating 17-year-olds from the general prison population, as PREA requires, claiming it would have no benefit. But he is ignoring well-accepted statistics showing younger inmates are the most common victims of sexual assault.

Texas’ refusal to adopt PREA’s commonsense policies exposes it to liability in the courts. The Constitution requires government officials to take commonsense steps to protect inmates from harm, including rape.

The Texas Civil Rights Project has often represented victims of sexual assault in the prison system.

Perry has made a career of kicking dirt at the federal government, but this was a horrible issue for him to politicize.

Rape is not a partisan issue. It is not a state-rights issue. It is a moral issue, and anyone with a strand of moral fiber understands it should be treated with utmost seriousness.

The Republican-dominated Congress that wrote PREA and the Republican President who signed it into law understood that. Our leaders today need to stop making excuses and get to work.

Brian McGiverin is a prisoners’ rights attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin.