Commentary: Why Texas is still the ‘prison rape capital of the world’

Fifteen years ago, President George Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act to address the epidemic of prison rape in our country’s prisons and jails. The same year PREA passed, Passion Star was 19 years old and identified as LGBT.

Star was sentenced to 20 years in the Texas prison system and knew nothing about PREA at the time. But Star would quickly become intimately familiar with this piece of federal legislation.

As an LGBT person in the prison system, Star was a target for abuse by both staff and other inmates. Star was regularly raped, beaten, threatened and forced into sexual relationships with other inmates. At one point, Star’s face was slashed with a razor blade, resulting in 36 stitches. What makes these experiences even more difficult to comprehend is the fact that prison staff were aware of the abuse — and did nothing to prevent it.

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Prison rape is a national problem. Recently released data show that there were 24,661 allegations of sexual victimization in prisons, jails, and other adult correctional facilities in 2015. Forty-two percent were perpetrated by staff members. Unfortunately, Texas leads the nation in sexual assault allegations. In fact, five of the 10 most sexually violent prisons in the country are right here in Texas.

Several years ago, Newsweek referred to Texas as the “prison rape capital of the world,” an ignominious description of a system that by its very nature maintains sexual violence inside of its facilities.

Star knows firsthand the structural and interpersonal violence that exists inside prison facilities across Texas; it is represented in the degradation, humiliation and violence that mark the 15 years Star spent behind prison walls.

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During incarceration, Star heard of PREA but never saw the results of proper implementation. For example, one important part of PREA is to establish emotional support services for incarcerated survivors after a sexual assault. Prisons do not provide an environment conducive to any therapeutic interventions, and PREA relies on outside rape crisis centers to provide these services at no cost.

At no point during those 15 years was Star offered counseling, rape crisis services or other mental health care. Instead, Star was ridiculed and humiliated by staff who were supposed to be protectors. Often, Star was placed in solitary confinement as a shield from violence that the prison system allowed to proliferate.

After 15 years, Star was granted parole and moved back to Central Texas. Although no longer subjected to the daily abuse of prison life, the emotional and mental anguish had just begun as Star returned to society after 15 years of institutional violence. More than anything, Star wanted to help others left behind, friends who are still undoubtedly enduring the same abuses.

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Unwilling to let their traumatizing experiences behind bars define life today, Star looked for opportunities to get involved with organizations that supported all survivors of sexual violence, even incarcerated survivors. Connecting with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault gave Star support and resources – and eventually, a position with the organization as an advocate for incarcerated survivors of sexual assault. The work isn’t easy, says Star. But it has also led to healing – and building a life that has meaning.

Ending prison rape is going to take more than just legislation; it will take advocates, community members and corrections professionals to work together to address this issue. More importantly, current and former incarcerated survivors of sexual violence must be allowed a seat at the table. Their experiences are the most important to consider — yet, their voices are the least heard and the most silenced.

Our hope is to bring their voices front and center and to commit the next 15 years to realizing PREA’s purpose: the elimination of prison rape in Texas and across the country.

Luna is CEO of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.

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