Abbott Reverses Perry on Prison Rape Law
- Lauren McGaughy
- October 6, 2015
- Houston Chronicle
Governor vows to follow federal rules to end rapes
AUSTIN – Gov. Greg Abbott has promised Texas will implement federal rules aimed at eradicating rape in prisons and jails, less than two years after his predecessor, Rick Perry, said it would be “impossible” to do so.
On the eve of his second unsuccessful presidential bid, then-Gov. Perry refused to sign on to the pledge, costing Texas more than $800,000 in federal grants and drawing the ire of criminal justice advocates. Just 18 months later, Abbott not only has bucked his predecessor on the issue, but has agreed to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure the goal is met as quickly as possible.
“There’s no doubt that Perry did this as part of his preparation to run for president, and Gov. Abbott is obviously much more focused on the health and wellness of folks in his prisons,” said Chris Daley, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, a Los Angeles-based advocacy organization dedicated to ending sexual abuse behind bars. “I think Gov. Abbott has been much more positive about the ability of his corrections professionals.”
Kathy Walt, former chief of staff for Perry, said it was “categorically untrue” the governor made his decision based on politics, adding he truly believed the law’s mandates could not be met at the time.
“Perry didn’t say we wouldn’t abide by it, he said we couldn’t,” Walt said. “We were already working toward a number of (the rules), but there appeared to be conflicts involved.”
Lost $810,000 in grants
The Prison Rape Elimination Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003, is aimed at preventing, detecting and responding to sexual abuse in confinement settings, and requires federal and state lockups to implement best practices and national standards or face penalties, such as the loss of federal grant money.
Some of PREA’s standards include taking detailed medical records on inmates’ histories of sexual abuse, screening inmates when they enter or change facilities to assess their risk for being sexually abused or abusive and conducting and maintaining records of all incidents that occur within the facility. Jails and prisons also must undergo periodic audits to ensure staff members are educated on and adhering to these best practices.
By 2014, all but six states had come into compliance with the law or promised to set aside federal dollars to do so, but Perry said it would be impossible for Texas to live up to the “counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome” standards. He told the U.S. Department of Justice in a letter sent in March of that year that he would not sign documents assuring the state was working toward implementing PREA and would “encourage my fellow governors to follow suit.”
As a result of Perry’s resistance, Texas lost more than $810,000 in federal grant money meant to help the state work toward eliminating the sexual assault of prisoners.
After his election as governor in November 2014, Abbott was quick to reverse course on the issue, but federal officials rejected his first letter assuring them that Texas was moving toward full PREA implementation because he failed to set aside money specifically to work toward that goal. The governor righted that error just weeks later, however, assuring the Justice Department that Texas would use at least 5 percent of the $24.7 million the state receives in PREA-related federal grants to work toward full compliance.
The governor’s office this week confirmed the federal government has accepted Abbott’s assurance letter, the first time the state has become compliant with the law’s mandates since it was passed, ensuring Texas would not lose another $771,742 in federal money this year. Now, four states remain noncompliant with the law.
“Texas has taken significant steps to eliminate prison rape,” Abbott said in his May 28 letter to the federal government. “Every facility that has completed the PREA audit process has been certified as fully compliant. And I can assure you that we will use not less than 5 percent of our PREA funds to enable the State to work toward full compliance with DOJ’s PREA standards wherever feasible.”
Prison audits underway
Dozens of the roughly 250 state jails and prisons, juvenile residential facilities and Department of Public Safety lockups or temporary confinement facilities have been audited and designated as compliant with the law, Abbott said in his letter. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which owns and operates 109 state jails and prisons, has audited and found 37 of its facilities in compliance with the law, with four more on the way, according to TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark. Audits of the other facilities are expected to be completed by 2017, when the PREA inspection deadline ends. The audit process then will start over again.
Matt Simpson, a senior policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said Abbott’s decision to move toward full PREA compliance was predictable but still heartening.
“I don’t think it’s surprising to anyone watching this issue,” Simpson said of the about-face, noting that even after Perry said the state was not interested in complying with PREA, TDCJ officials continued to implement its standards and even started the audit process. “It’s very possible for Texas to be fully compliant. I don’t see how that could be a problem.”
Daley agreed, but said he was concerned Abbott’s letter said Texas would implement the standards “wherever feasible.”
“We actually don’t think DOJ should have accepted this as an assurance,” said Daley. “We just think there’s clear statutory language and DOJ should have enforced that clear statutory language and should have not created a ‘Texas assurance.’ ”
Advocates also expressed concern that there is no clear mechanism to ensure county jail facilities are compliant because Abbott’s letter only applies to state facilities.
Issue turns to juveniles
Two of Harris County’s four jails are fully compliant, helped in part by the $237,000 in federal grants the county has received since 2013. The county in 2013 also rolled out the nation’s most comprehensive policy regarding sexual abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates, which has set the standard for facilities across the country.
After the Legislature failed to raise Texas’ legal age of adulthood to 17, however, issues with minor inmates remain for some county jails.
“The largest challenge is separating juveniles by sight and sound,” confirmed Harris County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Ryan Sullivan. Calling it more of a “logistical” problem, Sullivan said the county is confident its other two jails will be certified compliant by next year.
Originally posted here