Meredith Simons and Robert Gavin, Survey: Texas prisons lead in inmate rape, April 3, 2010, Houston Chronicle
Each week, the staff of the prison watchdog group Just Detention International receives about 30 letters from inmates who say they've been sexually assaulted in prisons across the nation.
More than a quarter of those letters come from one state: Texas.
Sexual abuse is a problem in prisons nationwide. But even when adjusted for the number of inmates in a given prison system, Texas still stands out as the state where sexual assault in prison is most prevalent.
Five of the 10 prisons with the highest rates of sexual abuse in the country are in Texas. That includes the top two, the Estelle Unit, north of Huntsville, and the Clements Unit, east of Amarillo.
Garrett Cunningham was an inmate at the Luther Unit in Navasota in 2000, when he says a corrections officer twice his size accosted him on his way to the shower, handcuffed him, raped him and then forced him into the shower. Cunningham said the officer threatened to have him transferred to "a rougher unit where I would be raped all the time" if he told anyone about the assault.
Cunningham told his story to a panel of congressmen investigating sexual abuse in prisons in 2005.
"Many men and women in Texas experience sexual abuse at the hands of officers and other prisoners," Cunningham said. "Their pleas for help go unanswered by administrators and staff."
The federal government now is implementing new standards for prisons, jails and other lockups in what advocates and the Department of Justice call a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end sex abuse behind bars.
"This is something that I think needs to be done, not tomorrow, but yesterday," Attorney General Eric Holder told the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies last month.
New standards were proposed in June by a commission formed after passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. Facilities will have one year to implement the final recommendations, due this year and subject to federal approval.
"Protecting prisoners from sexual abuse remains a challenge in correctional facilities across the country," the commission stated in its 259-page report. "Too often, in what should be secure environments, men, women and children are raped or abused by other incarcerated individuals and corrections staff."
The alarming ranking of the Estelle Unit was revealed after the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics surveyed inmates in hundreds of state and federal prisons, as well as county lockups, for the new law.
Nationwide, the rate of inmates reporting sexual victimization within a prior 12-month period was 4.5 percent. At Estelle, it was 15.7 percent.
Four other Texas prisons were in the top 10, including the Clements Unit, the Allred Unit near Wichita Falls, the Mountain View Unit near Gatesville and the Coffield Unit near Tennessee Colony. Those prisons had rates of abuse from 9.3 percent to 13.9 percent.
Texas officials say that the rates of abuse reflected in that report may have been artificially inflated by the report's methodology, which recorded inmates' complaints without attempting to verify their validity.
State prison personnel say they've already made progress in educating prison employees and inmates alike about the need to combat sexual abuse and the options that are available to them if they've already been attacked.
Texas is the only state in the country to have a special prosecution unit that specializes in crimes committed in prisons. The state has implemented the Safe Prisons Program, designed to educate inmates about sexual assault and separate likely abusers from potential victims.
"Texas is actually at the forefront of trying to stop sexual violence in prisons," prosecutor Gina DeBottis said.
The inmate protection unit, which DeBottis now heads, was launched in the 1980s to cope with a rash of gang-related murders in Texas prisons. Now, the organization's nine prosecutors and seven investigators handle prison-crime cases involving everything from murder to contraband.
They also prosecute sexual abuse cases, both when inmates assault other inmates and corrections officials attack inmates.
Linda McFarlane, deputy director of Just Detention, said there are many individuals within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who are committed to fixing the problem. But she says the sprawling system, with its huge numbers of prisons and prisoners, is difficult to police.
"What I've picked up is that the culture in those prisons is that each one is sort of an entity unto itself," McFarlane said. "That makes it very difficult to make and enforce policy that is consistent across the entire system."
Nationwide, inmates report more sexual abuse at the hands of guards than fellow inmates. The same is often true in Texas prisons. At the Clements Unit, 5 percent of inmates said they'd been pressured or forced into sex with other inmates, while 11 percent reported being pressured or forced into sex with prison staff.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act commission report said the young, mentally disabled, those with small stature and lack of experience in jails, and gay prisoners all appear to be at increased risk of sexual abuse by other prisoners.
Not all sex between corrections officers and inmates is coerced; an additional 6 percent of Clements inmates reported consensual sex with staff. But even if an inmate expresses a willingness to have sex with a corrections officer, it is illegal.
Holder has until June to act on the commission's recommendations, which include use of video to prevent sex abuse; housing changes and transfers for victims; sanctions for any inmates or staffers engaging in abuse; and written agreements with outside law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to investigate allegations of sex abuse.
If Holder acts, the commission's ideas could become mandatory at any prison that accepts federal funds.
This article was also featured in The Austin American-Statesman, Dallas Morning News, The Crime Report, and Grits for Breakfast.