In a remarkably civil letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the state would comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act “wherever feasible.” That’s a big step from previous Governor Rick Perry, who called the law “counterproductive” and “unnecessarily cumbersome.” Texas is among the states with the highest rates of inmate sexual assault.
In a recent feature, we told you about Passion Star, the transgender Texas woman who says she’s been subject to relentless rape and assault during her 12 years incarcerated in men’s facilities. After asking for over a decade to be placed on safekeeping, a version of protective custody that doesn’t involve solitary confinement, Star’s request was finally granted last month. That was after federal LGBT rights organization Lamda Legal sued on her behalf, and after the New York Times started asking for permission to interview her.
In his letter to Lynch, Abbott doesn’t specifically mention the rights of trans inmates. He says 32 prison units have been audited by federal PREA inspectors, and 28 have been found fully compliant. He also says Texas is “continuing to address” the confinement of 17-year-olds, who are tried as adults in Texas and kept in adult jails and prisons. (For certain crimes, Texas also keeps teens as young as 14 in adult jails while awaiting trial and post-conviction. Many times, to prevent sexual abuse from adult inmates, they’re kept in solitary confinement, which can create depression, paranoia, panic, anxiety, and exacerbate existing mental health issues.)
The letter from Abbott may not look like much. But it’s remarkable coming from a man who, as state attorney general, once described his job as, “I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home.” And it is, at the very least, an indication that Texas is looking at the PREA standards, and that stories like Passion Star’s might one day be a little less common in the state.
Jael Humphrey, Passion Star’s attorney at Lambda Legal, released a statement that reads, in part:
This announcement is important, but our campaign is not done yet. It is easy for states to simply say that they will work towards PREA compliance, without actually making any changes. Governor Abbott and the governors of other states must use their leadership to change the culture in prisons and jails to underscore that sexual violence will not be tolerated, that perpetrators will be punished, and reports of sexual abuse will be investigated.
Governor Abbott has taken a necessary first step to stop sexual violence in Texas prisons and jails. It is only the first step, however, and sustained commitment is needed from all levels of the Texas criminal justice system to make clear that rape is not an acceptable part of any sentence, for any crime. PREA provides a framework to make desperately needed change.
Passion Star is quoted in the same press release, saying she desperately wants to see PREA implemented in Texas: “There needs to be some kind of oversight. People placed in positions of power aren’t doing enough to keep people from being hurt, to keep people from being raped. It needs to stop.”
The full letter is below: