Gov. Rick Perry of Texas seems determined to leave behind a legacy of turning Texas into as much of a hellscape as he can before leaving office. His latest move is to send a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, signaling Texas’ unwillingness to comply with federal regulations issued by the Department of Justice to reduce rape in prison. The regulations were created under the authority of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, but due to information gaps and political struggles, it’s taken an entire decade to actually create and enforce the regulations.
Despite the fact that it took 10 years to get here, Perry uses his letter to characterize the regulations as a bunch of ignorant nonsense the DOJ pulled out of thin air, writing, “The rules appear to have been created in a vacuum with little regard for input from those who daily operate state prisons and local jails.” As ThinkProgress reports, Perry’s characterization is simply untrue, as the head of Texas corrections, Brad Livingston, praised the process of drafting regulations back in 2010 with a letter to the DOJ stating, “[I]t is apparent the Department of Justice gave careful consideration to the comments submitted by many interested parties during 2010, the [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] has few issues relating to the proposed national standards.”
So what’s Perry’s problem? Most of his objections are to the extra protections for inmates under 18 that PREA requires. Since 1 in 8 minors in detention are subject to sexual abuse, PREA requires that minors are separated from adults and sets standards for the ratio of prison staff to prisoners in juvenile detention centers. Perry objects to these regulations because Texas wants to keep 17-year-olds in the adult prison. He also doesn’t want to have to hire more prison staff at juvenile facilities to meet the minimum standards. “One of Texas’$2 254 counties has said that compliance with this standard would require them to hire 30 more detention officers,” he writes, as if it’s self-evident that this is too much to ask. Taken from another angle, however, one could be appalled at how understaffed some juvenile facilities in Texas are.
Texas is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to prison rape, causing the Dallas Voice to deem the state the “prison rape capital of the U.S.” Perry downplays this problem, saying that state attempts to fix the problem caused “an 84 percent decrease in the number of allegations of non-consensual sex acts” in juvenile facilities and a 10 percent drop in adult facilities between 2011 and 2012. The anti-prison rape organization Just Detention told ThinkProgress they are skeptical of this drop in light of the overwhelming number of letters they get from Texas inmates, including many chronicling pressure put on victims to conceal the crimes. Instead, they suggest that the drop may reflect the victims’ fear “of retaliation for speaking out against sexual violence.”
Perry also objects to rules regarding cross-gender monitoring—the new regulations require that only same-sex guards conduct both direct and remote monitoring of inmates in states of undress—because, he says, women who work in men’s prisons would lose their jobs. (Presumably, the reverse is also true.) However, it seems his concerns are overblown. In this description of the regulation in question, the National PREA Resource Center makes it clear that the ban on cross-gender viewing only applies to cameras focused on areas where inmates are dressing, showering, and using the toilet. “Practically, most cameras in correctional facilities are focused on common areas, including dayrooms, hallways, recreation areas, etc.,” explains the National PREA Resource Center. Making accommodations in men’s prisons so that female guards are put on common-area cameras and only male guards watch showers does not sound so onerous.
Ominously, Perry ends his letter by stating his intention to encourage other governors to refuse compliance with these new regulations, suggesting that this may be as much a political maneuver as it is based in a legitimate concern about the feasibility of complying to these regulations in Texas. “Sexual assault, including assaults in correctional facilities, is unacceptable, and all reasonable steps must be taken to prevent it,” he writes. But what Rick Perry considers “reasonable” is not getting the job done.