JDI IN THE NEWS - 2014

Grandstanding on Prisons in Texas

April 4, 2014
By The Editorial Board, The New York Times

Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, is gearing up for the 2016 presidential elections by bellowing about imaginary overreach from Washington and refusing to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

The law was approved by Congress with unanimous bipartisan support and signed into law by George W. Bush, Mr. Perry's predecessor in the governor's mansion. It requires institutions that receive federal money to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual violence behind bars and use rigorous tactics to prevent it.

After the bill became law, the Justice Department developed basic rules that, among other things, hold governors responsible for monitoring progress, providing periodic audits and making sure that corrections systems comply with the law.

Mr. Perry's complaints about the rules are without merit, but the governor wants to show that he's opposed to federal oversight of any sort. Unfortunately, his cynical stance could prompt state corrections officials to ignore policies that protect inmates from sexual predation. The consequences could be terrible since the Texas system is replete with the sexual violence that prompted Congress to pass this law.

Mr. Perry announced his intention to flout the law in a March 28 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. He implied that Texas had its own rape-prevention measures and did not need federal oversight. Federal data consistently tell a different story. A 2013 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that Texas had more prison facilities with high rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence than any other state.

There are several rules that seem to particularly irk Mr. Perry. One requires states to periodically audit rape prevention programs. Another requires them to certify that their prisons are in compliance. Mr. Perry complains that he couldn't possibly certify compliance because he can't audit all of the facilities covered by the law at once. However, the rules make clear that only one-third of the covered facilities need to be audited each year.

Moreover, the Justice Department has explained that the compliance process is flexible -- the governor does not have to rely solely on audit data but can take into account internal reports or any other information that could be used to gauge whether the system meets the requirements of the law.

Mr. Perry also takes issue with a provision that sets minimum staffing levels for juvenile facilities so that young people are adequately protected from predators, including those who might be part of the institution's staff. The levels set in the rules are consistent with those used in a dozen states and are deemed necessary to keep young people safe. The states are not required to reach those levels until 2017.

Another rule that troubles Mr. Perry bars nonmedical staff members of the opposite sex from viewing inmates while they are showering, using the toilet or changing their clothing -- except in emergencies or incidentally during routine cell checks. He argues absurdly that it would violate gender discrimination laws because it would somehow impede women from doing their jobs properly and advancing professionally. And finally, he suggests that the rules were foisted on the states without consultation -- even though the Justice Department consulted widely for nearly three years and solicited extensive comment from all relevant constituencies, including corrections officials.

States that do not fully comply with the rules could lose 5 percent of the money they would normally receive from the Justice Department for prison purposes -- unless they agree to spend the 5 percent on the rape prevention program. That is only a limited sanction, but the Justice Department should enforce it vigorously.

Originally posted at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/05/opinion/grandstanding-on-prisons-in-texas.html


Bookmark and Share