In late March, Texas Governor Rick Perry sent a letter to the Department of Justice (PDF) bemoaning the fact that his state would have to comply with key provisions of federal legislation intended to reduce sexual violence in prisons and jails. This federal legislation–the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA)–was passed back in 2003, and ten years of effort have been put into researching and refining rules related to its implementation.
Now it’s time for states to come into compliance with the law, and Perry has taken the opportunity to play politics with its mandates instead of doing the right thing and making his prisons and jails safer for his communities. The governor’s arguments against PREA implementation are not only myopic and disingenuous, but are also couched in the type of snark and sarcasm that so often passes for political discourse these days.
Let’s see what he had to say.
The governor’s letter begins with this false claim:
The rules [of PREA] appear to have been created in a vacuum with little regard for input from those who daily operate state prisons and local jails.
In fact, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC), which was created by the PREA legislation, sought input from correctional officials at all levels of the system for years before implementation of the law began. According to the NPREC:
The NPREC was a bipartisan panel created by Congress as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. The Commission was charged with studying federal, state and local government policies and practices related to the prevention, detection, response and monitoring of sexual abuse in correction and detention facilities in the United States. Consistent with the Act, the Commission’s recommendations are designed to make the prevention of rape a top priority in America’s jails, prisons, lockups, juvenile facilities, and other detention facilities. The commission submitted its report to the President, Congress, The Attorney General, The Secretary of Health and Human Services and other federal and state officials on June 23, 2009.
Representatives from Perry’s own state department of corrections have even gone so far as to praise the federal government’s efforts to gather information about local prison and jail operations as part of developing implementation rules:
…during one of several public comment periods, Texas corrections department head Brad Livingston wrote to the Department of Justice in 2010, “it is apparent the Department of Justice gave careful consideration to the comments submitted by many interested parties during 2010, the TDCJ has few issues relating to the proposed national standards.”
Far from being created in a vacuum, the opposite appears to have been the case. To claim now that the state cannot comply because of a lack of input by correctional experts is disingenuous, to say the least, and an outright falsehood in the worst case.
The governor goes on to contend that his state is leading the effort to reduce sexual assaults in prisons through its Safe Prisons Program:
Since 2001, TDCJ [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] has started the Safe Prisons Program, created and tested zero tolerance policies, added additional video surveillance, established a PREA ombudsman and developed comprehensive sexual assault training for staff and offenders.
The sad fact is that Texas prisons are among the least safe in the country today. Based on data collected from 2009 to 2011 as part of PREA, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found one correctional unit in Texas as having the highest rate of sexual assault in the United States, and five other Texas prisons or jails as being particularly violent as well – a higher number than any other state in the survey.
Next, the governor asserts that he is under “threat of criminal penalties” if he does not certify that all jails and prisons in his state are in compliance with PREA’s requirements by May of this year. This is another disingenuous statement, given that he does have other options under the law. According to the National PREA Resource Center:
Pursuant to the PREA statute, the governor has three options: 1) submit a certification that the state is in full compliance; 2) submit an assurance that not less than five percent of its DOJ funding for prison purposes shall be used only for the purpose of enabling the state to adopt and achieve full compliance with the PREA standards; or 3) accept a five percent reduction in such grants.
He is looking at losing funding if he doesn’t comply, but he could choose to simply assure that a portion of federal funding his state currently receives for prison operations could be used to bring facilities into compliance. That doesn’t sound like a threat. It sounds like a reasonable measure to help states improve their practices.
It’s pretty clear that all this is just political grandstanding. Instead of taking his obligations seriously in this area, Perry is choosing to turn his correctional system into just another opportunity to score political points with his base. Ironically, he is also choosing to operate a correctional system that is incredibly dangerous, not only to the inmates it confines, but to the public at large, including his political supporters.
One of the driving forces behind PREA is the idea that the chances of successful inmate rehabilitation are significantly reduced when inmates are subjected to sexual violence while incarcerated. Considering that Dallas and Houston are perennially among the top ten cities with the highest rates of crime in the country, as is the state of Texas overall, you would think that rehabilitating offenders, and reducing the likelihood of them engaging in repeated criminal behavior, would be a high priority.
Further, research on the benefits of preventing sexual violence in correctional environments also make clear that such efforts are important, not only on humanitarian grounds, but also because they can result in significant cost savings as well:
Prevention dollars, if appropriately targeted, save therapeutic intervention dollars. To capture these “savings,” however, inmate safety must be a top priority. Prioritizing safety requires the establishment of reasonable standards of safety and safety benchmarks for prisons, followed by measuring performance on safety accurately and reliably and reporting performance data in ways consistent with standards of transparency and accountability. Safe, humane prisons can be expected to yield immediate savings by avoiding the costs of treating the consequences of physical and sexual assault, and longer term savings if the people leaving prison are less impaired with emotional and psychological difficulties created by the prison environment.
Instead of wasting money on programs that apparently don’t work to reduce sexual violence in prisons (the Safe Prisons Project), and wasting time complaining to the DOJ about having to comply with PREA, the governor should set his sights on taking responsibility for what he is allowing to occur in his jails and prisons.
I’m just glad I don’t live in Texas.
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