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Perry says Texas will not comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act

Amazing the number of laws Rick Perry refuses to obey, isn’t it?

More than a decade after the Prison Rape Elimination Act unanimously passed Congress, federal standards for implementation of the law have been finalized. Now, Gov. Rick Perry and some prison reform advocates are at odds over what those standards mean for Texas lockups and the taxpayers who pay for them.

In a March 28 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Perry wrote that while he believed the law was well-intended, he would not certify that the 297 state prisons and local jails that are subject to PREA comply with its regulations come May 15, the certification deadline set by Department of Justice.

The new standards, he wrote, are “impossible,” out of touch with the daily realities of state prisons and would require heavy financial burdens.

“Absent standards that acknowledge the operational realities in our prisons and jails, I will not sign your form and I will encourage my fellow governors to follow suit,” Perry wrote.

But a spokesman for the correctional officers union said that not complying with the federal rules puts Texas at risk financially and legally.

Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the prison system has already made significant progress in meeting PREA standards.

“We are compliant with most of PREA’s standards, except for the cross-gender supervision standard,” Clark said.

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“The Texas prison system already realized some time ago that they need to work to create safer environments for inmates,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Still, noncompliance with PREA could have financial consequences. It would not only result in a 5 percent reduction of federal funding, but it could make the state vulnerable to lawsuits, said Lance Lowry, president of the Texas correctional employees union.

“The governor’s office has a gross misunderstanding of what the PREA act is all about,” Lowry said. “And the state’s failure to comply with regulation will open up a tremendous amount of liability.”

In recent years, Texas has revamped parole, reduced recidivism, added specialized drug courts and reduced overall prison costs. Still, Deitch said, challenges remain — most importantly, sufficient staffing.

“I think the governor makes a lot of very good points in his letter. He highlights some of the issues that will be hardest for correctional agencies in the state,” Deitch said. “But I think it’s also really important for us to realize that [the state agencies] are already very close to being in compliance now.”

There’s also the fact that just because something isn’t easy to do, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have to do it. We don’t take that attitude with schoolchildren, and we shouldn’t take it with Governors, either. If the Harris County jail can meet this standard – ahead of schedule, by the way – then so can TDCJ.

Grits had this story before the Trib and the Chron did, with followups here and here. Go read what Grits has to say and see what you think. It would also be nice to know what the two leading candidates for Governor think about this as well. Lone Star Q has more.

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