In 2003 the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was unanimously passed by both Houses of Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush. At a time in our history when rabid partisan politics was already beginning to rear its ugly head the Senate sponsors for the bill were none other than Edward Kennedy of MA and Jeff Sessions of AL. I’m sure it helped that there was a broad coalition of supporters that ran the gamut between the National Association of Evangelicals and Amnesty International. The general public seemed to truly understand that many of those being sexually victimized were very young, nonviolent offenders, not the stereotypical violent offender who was “getting what he deserved.” In fact, no jail or prison should allow inmates to be vulnerable to assault from fellow inmates or guards.
It was through the Human Rights Watch’s 2001 report “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons” that this tragic issue entered our collective consciousness as something more than a tacky comedic punchline. Texas was certainly referenced though-out the document as having a significant problem with rape in our prisons, jails, and detention facilities.
Over the course of the past 10 years, Texas, like other states, is making some progress thanks to PREA. Corrections Officers are being specially trained through the Safe Prisons Program to be more proactive and aware of conditions that make sexual assault more likely. There is a PREA Ombudsman Office that works to improve reporting of sexual abuse, as well as investigate allegations of sexual assault in the prisons. When prisoners are initially processed into the system they are given written materials that explain their rights, identify how to report victimization, and offer practical suggestions that may reduce their vulnerability to sexual assault in this setting. Given this backdrop the current developments with PREA are even more disappointing.
Recent rules and guidelines approved by the Department of Justice were meant to direct states to compliance and included a penalty of losing 5% of certain federal grant monies, including VAWA, if out of compliance. Texas is out of compliance and Governor Perry sent a detailed letter to Attorney General Eric Holder outlining the reasons, from his perspective, that the rules are misguided or unworkable for our state, and possibly other states as well. The Governor’s letter also stated that experts in corrections were not included in developing these rules which is not in fact accurate. Still, other points made in the letter did point out the double bind many states are likely to experience trying to implement PREA. Some advocacy organizations and media sources responded by calling out the governor. Some concerns were certainly fair game, other statements implying Perry doesn’t care if inmates are raped in Texas were cheap shots more than objective journalism.
All the stakeholders involved in this debate would be better served to remember the victims and be less concerned with pointing fingers or making excuses. Neither of these actions does anything to make inmates safe from sexual abuse. Is ending sexual abuse in jails and prisons complex? Absolutely! Will workable solutions likely take some bending on the part of both the states and the federal government? Perhaps. I don’t pretend to have all the answers that can bring us to where we need to be but what I do know is the work and the dialogue must continue. The Texas Department of Criminal Jus tice (TDCJ) can take steps to move forward regardless of PREA or federal enforcement. TDCJ must provide accessible medical and mental health care to incarcerated survivors. They need to resolve staffing issues that make inmates more vulnerable to sexual assault. Additionally, they must look for solutions to protect at-risk inmates beyond the practice of administrative segregation. As advocates we must work even harder to bring pressure, provide support, inform the process, whatever it takes to help get this job done.
Photo citation: Kolk, Melinda. capitolprovidenceri.jpg.