Texas Gov. Rick Perry is balking -- apparently alone -- at a "mess" of federal rules aimed at ensuring states eliminate rape in their prisons.
Mr. Perry’s defiance has won him plenty of put-downs in social media, with the Twitterati wondering whether he "supports" prison rape.
But the feisty Republican’s letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) complains that the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) appears to have anti-women labor policies, unfunded hiring mandates, and an unjust requirement that Texas give up its own laws permitting 17-year-olds to be treated as adults in the criminal-justice system.
"No one argues against PREA’s good intentions," Mr. Perry said in a March 28 letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., but PREA’s new rules are "making it impossible for Texas -- and, I suspect, other states -- to comply" with it, especially by a May 15 deadline.
"Washington," Mr. Perry added, sought to address "a problem in our prisons and jails, but instead created a counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome and costly regulatory mess for the states."
A Justice Department spokeswoman said Wednesday the department "is committed to helping state and local governments overcome any challenges they may encounter" as they implement the PREA rules.
"We are confident that these standards, which were the results of extensive public comment, are attainable," she said.
No other state leaders have publicly signaled their dismay with PREA. However, when they look at its conflicts with existing labor laws and other issues, they "may reach the same conclusions," Rich Parsons, a spokesman for Mr. Perry, said Wednesday.
Texas’ state prisons will comply with most PREA rules, prison spokesman Jason Clark said in an email to Associated Press this week.
But an exception is PREA’s limits on "cross-gender supervision." These "ill-conceived" rules would cause Texas to violate sex-discrimination labor laws, Mr. Perry said in his letter. Some 40 percent of Texas correctional officers in male units are female, he wrote, and PREA’s standards would harm these women’s abilities to take job assignments and promotion opportunities.
Advocates for human rights and prison employees said Mr. Perry was exposing the state to lawsuits and a loss of federal prison funding.
"It’s shameful for any governor to reject PREA," said Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, a human rights organization.
"From our stance, he is opening the agency and the agency staff to a tremendous amount of liability," said Lance Lowry, president of a corrections-officers union in Huntsville.
States that don’t certify their full compliance with the DOJ National Standards to Prevent, Detect and Respond to Prison Rape are subject to the loss of 5 percent of any DOJ grant funds that are intended for prison purposes, the PREA Resource Center web site says. States can get an exemption if they can assure Mr. Holder "that such 5 percent will be used only for the purpose of enabling the state to adopt and achieve full compliance with the National PREA Standards in future years."
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Mr. Perry, told the Associated Press that three federal grants totaling $23.9 million last year could be subjected to partial cuts, but Texas officials have not been told how much money could be at stake.
PREA, passed unanimously in 2003 by the Republican-led Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, seeks enforcement of a "zero-tolerance standard" for inmate sexual assault and rape; development of standards to detect, prevent, reduce and punish prison rape; data collection; and distribution of grants to help state and local governments implement PREA.
PREA applies to all public and private institutions that house adult or juvenile offenders, and addresses sexual misconduct by inmates as well as by staff.
Its rules were completed in 2012 and states were given until May 15 to complete an audit of nearly all prisons, jails and lockups. Mr. Perry said that deadline was "impossible to meet" since there are only about 100 certified auditors nationwide. Texas alone has about 300 facilities to audit.