Mike Ward, Lawmakers: Stop prison rapes, The Austin American-Statesman, April 8, 2010

Six key Texas legislators called today for prison officials to stop a continuing high rate of sexual assaults inside Texas prisons, citing an advocacy group’s claim that a quarter of its letters for help come from convicts in Lone Star lockups.

In a letter to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, meeting at an Austin hotel today and Friday, the lawmakers asked: “Doesn’t it seem that sexual assaults are still unacceptably prevalent in Texas prisons?”

The prison watchdog organization Just Detention International reported in a recent study that five of the 10 prisons in the country with the highest rates of rape and sexual abuse were in Texas, including the top two: The Estelle Unit near Huntsville and the Clements Unit near Amarillo.

The report was the focus of a story in Sunday’s edition of the Austin American-Statesman, which the legislators cited as a reason for their request.

The lawmakers include state Sens. John Carona, R-Dallas; Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and state Reps. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston; Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, and Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.

In 2007, Coleman and Ellis authored a law aimed at eliminating sexual assaults on Texas prison convicts. Merritt is chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, and Carona, Ellis and Hinojosa are members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that oversees prison operations.

In asking the prison board to address the issues raised in the newspaper report, the legislators asked whether prison sexual assaults have been reduced since 2007 and what steps are being taken to improve security and curb abuse as recommended last summer by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.

They noted in their letter that the statistics cited by Just Detention International were collected in 2007 before the new state law took effect.

Prison officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the letter. But in the past, they have said they have a zero tolerance policy against sexual abuse inside state prisons.

Responding to higher reported numbers of rapes after reporting rules were tightened several years ago, they insisted that showed their efforts to identify and stop abuse were working — since more convicts were reporting sexual assaults.

Since then, officials have said that confirmed assaults have decreased, although in some cases convicts have reported being attacked to get transferred to another cell or prison when no attack could be proven.

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