Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
In a shift away from his predecessor, Gov. Greg Abbott has informed the U.S. Department of Justice that Texas plans to comply as much as possible with a federal law that aims to prevent prison rape. Yet Abbott's notice was not enough for the department, which said Friday it did not count as a formal assurance under the law.
Last year, former Gov. Rick Perry said Texas would not follow some requirements of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, calling it a "counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome and costly regulatory mess." But in a recent letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Abbott sounded far less critical, making clear the state is now working to put in place every part of the law that it can.
"I cannot yet certify that the state is in full compliance with Prison Rape Elimination Act ("PREA"), because our PREA audits are still ongoing," Abbott wrote. "But every facility that has completed the PREA audit process has been certified as fully compliant. And I can assure you that we will fully implement DOJ's PREA standards wherever feasible."
Abbott's letter to Lynch was dated May 15 the last day governors had to tell the Justice Department whether their state was in compliance with the law or working to bring it up to speed. Under the PREA, governors also have to guarantee they will use at least five percent of justice department grant money in their efforts to fully meet the law's requirements — something Abbott did not do.
"The letter we received from Texas makes no such representation and therefore it cannot be considered to be an assurance under PREA," Justice Department spokeswoman Dena W. Iverson said in a statement.
Abbott spokeswoman Amelia Chasse responded Friday that the governor's letter "explained Texas' current efforts to comply and our plans to improve our compliance in the future." She also pointed back to Abbott's statement in the letter that he cannot yet guarantee Texas is in full compliance with the law because the audits are still underway.
It was not immediately clear what consequences Texas would face for effectively missing the deadline. The state faced a fine after Perry's missive last year.
Prior to the deadline, the gay rights group Lambda Legal had petitioned Abbott to do more to combat prison rape. Texas perennially ranks among the worst states for sexual violence against inmates. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates are disproportionately victims of sexual violence, according to advocates.
"Gov. Abbott has taken a necessary first step to stop sexual violence in Texas prisons and jails," Jael Humphrey, a Lambda Legal staff attorney, said in a statement Thursday. "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."