Rape is a horrible crime regardless of whether the victim is in prison, a college student on a date, or a member of the armed forces.
Yet prison officials often treat inmates as if their crime somehow warrants sexual abuse as additional punishment. For more than 80,000 inmates each year, this attitude has led to hellish rapes, often with attackers—whether guards or inmates—going unpunished.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was supposed to hold correctional facilities accountable for protecting inmates from sexual predators. However, only New Hampshire and New Jersey have fully complied with its requirements. Texas has been especially hostile to reform: It is one of just eight states to oppose the requirements outright, despite having one of the largest and most victimized prison populations in the nation.
Last year, Gov. Rick Perry railed against the law as “unnecessarily cumbersome and costly.” He refused to comply with it, exposing Texas to federal financial penalties. Disappointingly, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who supported reforms in 2003, introduced an amendment last year that would have removed such penalties, taking away the teeth of the act. Cornyn’s office said that was not his goal; he was trying to protect funding that benefits police and victims of domestic violence. In any case, the amendment failed when the bill it was attached to failed.
Granted, inmates are not sympathetic figures and their crimes deserve appropriate punishment. But rape is never an appropriate punishment. Inmates have basic rights that must be protected regardless of the criminal convictions that placed them behind bars.
Sexual abuse will continue to put prisoners at risk until Texas and other states stop foot-dragging on common-sense reforms. Protecting inmates is a moral and legal obligation, not a choice.
Gov. Greg Abbott should enact the federal reforms now, and Cornyn should use his leadership position as majority whip and as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to shape a compromise bill that addresses concerns about unintended consequences of the financial penalties without gutting enforcement. Cornyn is hopeful he can find a remedy later this session.
Abbott has no such excuse for delay. In the years since President George W. Bush signed the measure into law, the Department of Justice consulted extensively with all states before issuing guidelines two years ago for how correctional facilities should come into compliance. For Texas to so brazenly thumb its nose at the act is unacceptable.
Changing the prison culture in Texas requires the governor’s full-fledged, no-excuses commitment. Prison rape is a crime. Treat it as such and hold its perpetrators accountable.
About the law
The Prison Rape Elimination Act requires:
Written policies to affirm zero tolerance for sexual abuse and harassment.
Inmate education and staff training to raise awareness and recourse.
Safe housing and screening of potential inmate predators.
Partnerships with local crisis counseling and health services.
Protections for transgender inmates.
Banning cross-gender pat-down searches of female inmates.
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