Memo to Texas Sen. Cornyn: Don't Gut PREA

Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan

Late last year, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) offered an amendment, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a voice vote, that would have dramatically weakened the enforcement of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). The amendment would have exempted programs that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had slated to be subject to a financial penalty for states for non-compliance with PREA.

It didn't make it all the way through the Congress last session. But according to press reports, Sen. Cornyn appears to be preparing to offer it again.

If he does, Senate Judiciary Committee members should reject this ill-advised amendment. Here's why:

PREA's implementation is at a crucial phase.

The law was spearheaded by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, many of whom are still in Congress, and approved unanimously. In 2012, the DOJ issued regulations—the first time the department has created national standards to eliminate sexual abuse in prisons, jails, juvenile detention and correctional facilities, community corrections facilities, and police lock-ups.

We are starting to see the results of the PREA's implementation in the states now.

It's been slow: only two states are actually in full compliance with PREA, but many more have assured DOJ that they will be in compliance through governors' assurance letters.

With PREA implementation far from certain in every state, the Cornyn amendment would let states off the hook for non-compliance, thereby sending the wrong message to states at this critical time. The new version of Cornyn's amendment would remove the federal financial penalty altogether.

Another reason: members of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) oppose this amendment. After holding hearings all over the country as part of an exhaustive six-year study, the NPREC, established by the PREA legislation, issued comprehensive recommendations on how to implement PREA.

In a February 9 letter to Sen. Cornyn, the commissioners made clear they were concerned about any modifications to PREA that would “delay or weaken penalties for non-compliance with the standards.”

That recommendation should be seen as powerfully representing the views of a diverse group of experts and stakeholders. The commissioners include Pat Nolan, who founded the Justice Fellowship and is a member of the Right on Crime coalition; the Honorable Reggie Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia; and John Kaneb, President and CEO of H P Hood LLC, and also part owner of the Boston Red Sox.

Finally, the amendment would hamper efforts to help thousands of kids who are now at risk.

In issuing regulations to implement PREA, the DOJ declared its support for “strong limitations on the confinement of adults with juveniles.”

The regulations include the Youthful Inmate Standard, which bans the housing of youth in the general adult population, prohibits contact between youth and adults in common areas, and ensures that youth are constantly supervised by staff. At the same time, the regulations require limitations on the use of isolation in complying with the standard.

PREA would impact the nearly 100,000 youth who are cycled through adult jails and prisons every year. The NPREC's report shows that youth are not safe in adult jails and prisons, and are at the greatest risk of sexual victimization.

The story of Rodney Hulin is a tragic example of the dangers such children face daily.

Rodney, 17, was incarcerated at the Clemens Unit, a prison in Brazoria County, Texas for setting fire to a dumpster when he wrote a poignant letter to prison officials in 1996.

“I have been sexually and physically assaulted several times, by several inmates,” he wrote. “I am afraid to go to sleep, to shower, and just about everything else. I am afraid that when I am doing these things, I might die at any minute. Please, sir, help me.”

Rodney attempted suicide by hanging himself on January 26, 1996. He was revived by prison officials, but suffered brain damage from the incident and died on May 26, 1996.

His mother, Linda Bruntmeyer, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her son's experience in 2002, saying her son's experience was a reason why PREA should become law. PREA was passed by Congress a year later.

As a result of PREA, a number of states and localities have removed youth from adult facilities. Continued progress is essential to protecting kids behind bars.

The Cornyn amendment would have impeded that progress by weakening enforcement of PREA and exposing youth to the dangers of adult jails and prisons.

Fortunately, the Cornyn amendment didn't become law. Congress adjourned before the legislation to which the amendment was attached could be voted on in the House.

It's not clear why Sen. Cornyn wants to try again. After all, he supported PREA's original passage.

My hunch is that he's acting as a stalking horse for his state's governor, Governor Rick Perry, who has stated publicly that he does not intend to comply with the law.

But any potential supporters should keep in mind that another notable Texan, former President George W. Bush, signed PREA into law. It is also noteworthy that Texas has received millions in federal grants to implement PREA—more federal PREA funding than any other state.

Instead of supporting Cornyn, Senate Judiciary Committee members should remember the haunting story of another Texan named Rodney Hulin.

And they should turn their attention to the goal of removing all further obstacles to PREA's implementation. The tragedy of Rodney Hulin should never be repeated.

Liz Ryan is CEO of the Youth First! Initiative. She welcomes comments from readers.

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