Report Finds Texas Prison Officials Commonly Ignore Rape Grievances

Partnering with the Prison Justice League, the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault released a report Wednesday suggesting that sexual violence in prisons is not just rampant, but routinely ignored by Texas prison officials.

The two organizations surveyed prison inmates in May 2016 who had self-reported sexual assaults at 15 Texas prisons. While 100 percent of respondents said they reported the assault to authorities, not a single inmate reported his outcry being upheld. Fifty-nine percent said their assailant was a prison staff member, and 41 percent identified as LGBTQ, all of whom believed they were assaulted because of their sexual identity.

What the authors hammer home throughout the piece, however, is that despite the inmates' grievances, they are punished by authorities instead of being helped. Eighty-two percent said they were retaliated against after filing complaints — most commonly by being disciplined for filing the complaint at all.

For example, one gay inmate at the Estelle Unit reported being raped to a higher-ranking prison official, who responded by asking him, according to the report, "How can a fag be raped?" The official instead disciplined the inmate for having consensual sex, according to the Prison Justice League report. (It should also be noted that the Estelle Unit accounted for 40 percent of the sexual assault complaints among the 15 prisons in the study.)

Inmates also reported extreme difficulties obtaining safekeeping status or protective custody after repeated requests for help, as the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act requires. One had been sold into sexual slavery by prison gangs, and was placed in isolation only after exhausting the grievance process. One had been repeatedly gang-raped by prison gangs, and after filing several grievances, was only placed in safekeeping after his cellmate anally raped him with a razor blade. And after one gay inmate who was forced to perform oral sex on other inmates filed grievances, a guard broke his nose in retaliation.

“Texas leads the nation in prison rape,” said Erica Gammill, prisoner advocate at TAASA. “We’ve had many years of adequate guidance from the federal government on how to successfully implement the PREA standards, but this state is failing rape survivors.”

According to the study, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice operates a quarter of the nation's worst correctional facilities when it comes to inmate-on-inmate sexual violence (Estelle is, in fact, up there). Texas prisons also have some of the highest rates of staff-on-inmate sexual assault, at a rate of up to 9.4 percent (at the Clements Unit), compared to a 2.4 percent national average.

TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark told us that since federal officials began auditing the prisons in 2014, all 86 prisons with completed audits were found to be within PREA compliance, while seven audits still outstanding. But through the nightmares that many inmates reported, the researchers came to the conclusion that it did not appear that all standards were being followed at Texas prisons, saying that "administrative indifference, incompetence and retaliation remain common themes in our correspondence with inmates."

“The law requires Texas officials to take certain proven steps to protect prisoners from harm, including rape,” said Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director at TAASA. “When you go to prison, rape isn’t part of the punishment...We have to get serious about ending this epidemic.”
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn