In his latest defiant pushback against Washington mandates, Gov. Rick Perry has told federal officials that Texas will not comply with a law designed to curb prison rapes - a statute signed by President Barack Obama's predecessor, Republican George W. Bush.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Perry accused the Obama administration of enacting rules for the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 that Texas cannot afford to implement.
Failure to comply with the federal law carries possible penalties, including loss of grant funding for justice programs, and potential litigation. However, state and federal officials said Monday they did not expect Perry's refusal to trigger action against Texas anytime soon.
"Washington has taken an opportunity to help address a problem in our prisons and jails, but instead created a counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome regulatory mess for the states," Perry stated in the three-page letter dated Friday. "Absent standards that acknowledge the operational realities of our prisons and jails, I will not sign your form (certifying compliance with the act) and I will encourage my fellow governors to follow suit."
Perry cited three problems with the new rules, saying they:
Prohibit most cross-gender viewing, in which female guards, for example, supervise male showers. Because roughly 40 percent of Texas prison guards are women, this would make it impossible to properly staff the 109 state prisons, Perry wrote. A proposal by federal consultants to remove some security cameras and obstructing lines of sight "is ridiculous" and would be unsafe, Perry said.
Other states have complied by building half-screens in shower areas and staffing strip-search sites for male inmates with male guards. Female prisoners generally are supervised by women in Texas.
Prohibit housing 17-year-olds, the age Texas considers as adult in terms of criminal responsibility, with 18-year-olds. This would increase costs "with no discernible benefit to the state or its inmates," Perry's letter said.
Increase staffing requirements in some lockups. Separating prisoners would require additional lockups and staff - as many as 30 additional officers at one county jail, Perry said. While the new ratios might be ideal in some lockups, "the decision of what constitutes appropriate staff ratios should be left to each state and to those professionals with operational knowledge," he said in the letter.
Prison officials said Monday that reported sexual assaults have declined by about 10 percent in the past two years, after a Safe Prisons program implemented in 2001 forced operational changes.
Of the 351 allegations of nonconsensual sexual acts reported in 2012, seven were substantiated, said Jason Clark, a prison system spokesman. In 2011, 393 allegations were reported and eight were substantiated.
In a 2013 report, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics singled out more detention facilities in Texas than in any other state for having high levels of inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse. In two previous reports, in 2007 and 2010, Texas posted some of the highest rates of sexual victimization in the country in its lockups.
"Governor Perry's letter rejecting (the federal law) is a disgraceful illustration of why Texas prisons are among the most violent in the country," said Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, a national group pushing to stop prison rape. "Perry's letter doesn't only confirm bad leadership, it also provides a sad indication that things probably won't get better anytime soon in Texas."
Lance Lowry, president of a Huntsville-based union representing correctional officers, warned that Perry's refusal "will open Texas up to federal court litigation and increased liability for the state and correctional staff."
"Male staff are greatly restricted from having to engage in cross-gender viewing when it comes to female inmates, but the standard is not the same for women working in male prisons," he said. "Most of the â€¦ regulations could be easily adhered to if these male prisons were properly staffed."
Texas' prisons employ more than 25,000 correctional officers.