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Rick Perry refuses to comply with anti-rape law

The Texas governor doesn't want to comply with federal prison rape standards, and he's urging fellow governors to follow suit.
Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 18, 2013.
Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 18, 2013.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has decided to take another stand against the federal government. This time, his target is an anti-prison rape law.

“I will not sign your form and I will encourage my fellow governors to follow suit,” Perry wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the first governor to make such a move. 

The “form” in question is a letter asking governors to say whether they comply with the sexual violence prevention guidelines of the 2003 federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a law Congress passed unanimously and George W. Bush signed in 2003. Most of what the law has done so far is collect data on sexual victimization in prison, which had never been collected before. More recently, the Department of Justice has issued standards for prisons and jails, including limiting when guards of the opposite sex see prisoners naked or pat them down and prohibiting invasive searches of transgender prisoners. 

"Governor Perry’s letter rejecting PREA is a disgraceful illustration of why Texas prisons are among the most violent in the country,” Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International, said in a statement. The organization, which works on ending sexual abuse in prisons, said it had received more letters from Texan survivors of sexual violence than from any other state. 

Texas ranks fourth in the country in incarcerating people. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of prisoners, three out of the top five male prisons in the country for inmate-on-inmate sexual violence were in Texas. A Texas prison also ranked in the top four in the nation for staff sexual misconduct.  

The governors aren't actually even being forced to comply with the PREA standards. They're just being asked to say if they are, and if they aren't, whether they are devoting 5% of certain Justice Department grants to trying to comply. For Texas, that amounts to spending less than a million dollars to combat rape in jails and prisons. The annual operating budget of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is over $3 billion. 

“It’s a thumb in the eye of the president,” said Margo Schlanger, a law professor at the University of Michigan, who was an advisor on the development of the PREA regulations in question. She pointed out that if Texas has done even one day of rape prevention training for its corrections employees, it has probably already spent that much. 

Governors have until May 15 to report on their compliance, but Perry came out ahead of the deadline. This is the first year governors have had to report their progress, so there is no precedent for how a refusal like Perry's will be treated. But partly as a consequence of its bipartisanship, PREA doesn't have much enforcement power: The most the Justice Department can do is take away that 5% of the state's federal grants. For Texas, the second-largest state, that's an estimated $962,259.