Skip to comments.30-year Texas prison battle ends
Posted on 06/08/2002 8:02:12 AM PDT by deport
30-year Texas prison battle ends
Books closed on Ruiz suit that forced court oversight, reforms
Federal oversight of Texas' prison system, which led to sweeping reforms and contributed to an unprecedented prison construction boom, effectively ended Friday.
U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice, who concluded in 1980 that confinement in Texas prisons constituted cruel and unusual punishment, was told Friday by attorneys representing inmates that they did not plan to contest the termination of the landmark civil rights case. The case, which started with a lawsuit filed on behalf of David Ruiz and other inmates in 1972, fundamentally changed how Texas prisons operated.
RUIZ CASE THROUGH THE YEARS
Key dates in federal court oversight of the Texas penal system:
1972: Inmate David Ruiz and other prisoners sue the Texas Department of Corrections, alleging an array of constitutional violations. (The prison population is 15,700.)
October 1978-September 1979: The case is tried in Houston; 349 witnesses testify.
December 1980: U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice finds that confinement in Texas prisons constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. He cites brutality by guards, overcrowding, understaffing, use of inmate-guards called building tenders, poor medical care and uncontrolled physical abuse among inmates.
1981: Judge Justice orders improvements, sets deadlines and appoints a special master to supervise compliance.
April 1982: The state agrees to halt the building-tender system and hire additional guards.
January-June 1983: The Legislature passes laws aimed at reducing the prison population, including allowing early release of some inmates.
February 1984: A special master's report details numerous inmate beatings.
July 1985: Lawyers for the state and inmates negotiate a settlement.
January 1987: Judge Justice finds the state in contempt for violating settlement terms.
March 1987: Judge Justice says the state has demonstrated good faith since the contempt hearing.
November 1987: Voters authorize $500 million in bonds for prison construction.
1990: Texas leads the country in the number of convicted criminals on parole or probation.
March 1990: Judge Justice closes the special master's office.
November 1990: Voters approve $672 million in bonds to build 25,300 prison beds and 12,000 drug- and alcohol-treatment beds.
1992: Inmates' attorneys and the state negotiate a settlement. Judge Justice approves it. (The prison population is 51,225.)
January 1999: Judge Justice begins a hearing to determine whether Texas prisons should be free of court oversight.
March 1999: Judge Justice retains oversight and gives the state three months to present a remedy for "unconstitutional conditions and practices." The state says it will appeal.
March 2001: A three-judge appeals court panel in New Orleans reverses Judge Justice's opinion, telling him to review the matter.
October 2001: Judge Justice details specific remedies that could lead to state release from his jurisdiction by July 1, 2002.
June 7, 2002: Inmates' attorneys say they will not object to the court freeing the state from court oversight. (The prison population is 145,000.)
"This 30-year struggle is over, but the system has changed dramatically ...," said Gary Johnson, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "The problems were corrected and now we must move forward ... reducing recidivism, increasing rehabilitation and working to be productive without having this federal overview."
Friday's developments followed years of legal wrangling, and, more recently, pressure from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Justice to close the books on the Ruiz case.
Inmates' attorney Donna Brorby said she remains convinced that the prison system still faces serious issues, some of which she described as "systemic constitutional violations."
But she also said prison officials now recognize "some of the same problem areas that we saw."
"Ruiz had to end sometime or the other, and I guess we've decided the time will be now," Ms. Brorby said. The Texas prison system, she said, is now beginning a "journey into a brave new world."
By terminating the case, "full responsibility transfers back" to senior prison officials, said Austin lawyer Gregory S. Coleman, an attorney for the state. Drafts of an order of dismissal of current appeals in the Ruiz case were submitted Friday to Judge Justice. The role of inmates' attorneys also is nearing its end, and after mediation earlier this week, state officials agreed to pay them $1.9 million in fees to lawyers.
"We have no intention of returning to the old times of the pre-Ruiz suit," TDCJ spokesman Larry Todd said. "This is a modern world, and we run a modern prison system with 109 units across the state.
"The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has become a model for many other state prison system to study and follow," he said.
But in 1972, the Ruiz lawsuit alleged that Texas prisons were overcrowded and understaffed, and that Texas inmates were exposed to abuse and violence. The use of building tenders inmates who carried out some of the functions of guards also was criticized along with the quality of medical care for inmates. In 1980, Judge Justice agreed with many of the complaints in the Ruiz lawsuit and began federal oversight of the prison system.
Over time, Judge Justice decided that federal supervision no longer was merited in several areas that had been identified as problems. Last summer, he concluded that constitutional violations persisted in three major areas: conditions for inmates in "administrative segregation" (solitary confinement), a failure to provide reasonable safety to inmates against assault and abuse from other, and the use of force by correctional officers. He indicated that for Texas prisons to be free of federal oversight, those problems needed to be addressed.
After intense negotiations with attorneys representing Texas inmates, state officials made several commitments to take care of lingering concerns and resolve the Ruiz lawsuit.
"There's some commitments that are not going to be judicially enforceable," Ms. Brorby said. "We're relying on the state's good faith to follow through on them."
Those commitments include plans to beef up mental health services for inmates in administrative segregation and new limits on the amount of time that inmates will spend in the most restrictive level of administrative segregation before their cases are reviewed.
Ms. Brorby said site visits to prisons earlier this year found "fewer flagrantly psychotic prisoners" in administrative segregation, but she also noted that a number of such prisoners were placed in more appropriate housing "shortly before we got there."
In spite of some improvement, "the reality is that mental health care is inadequate in the prison system," she said.
Another commitment involves the National Institute of Corrections, a U.S. Justice Department agency that provides policy assistance to corrections agencies, which will conduct a series of site visits to Texas prisons to monitor, among other issues, the use of force by correctional officers and inmate safety.
"We basically agree in principle that there is good to be had by having outsiders come in and check us out, to see what's going on at particular units ... on top of all the other sorts of assessments and operational reviews that we do," Mr. Reynolds said.
TDCJ's office of general counsel also will assume additional "compliance monitoring" responsibilities to help ensure that problems identified in the Ruiz litigation are addressed. And prison officials said Friday that more statistical data will be available to the public.
From the start, the Ruiz litigation was contentious. But some criminal justice experts suggest that in addition to the improvements that have been made to the state's prison system, the attitudes of top prison officials, too, have changed.
When the lawsuit was filed, "Texas stood tall," said Sam Houston State University criminologist Charles Friel. "It was a very successful, much touted and much criticized model of how to run a prison system."
Largely self-sufficient, the Texas prison system produced its food and inmate clothing. And Texas was known for its productive prison industries.
But critics say the system, however productive and cost-efficient, was overcrowded and relied heavily on a brutalizing cadre of inmate building tenders to keep staffing low.
"You had a conflict between idealistic ideologues who were caught up in the massive social changes of the time and prison policy makers who, in their own minds, were justifiably proud of the prison system," Dr. Friel said.
Gradually, Dr. Friel said, a "grudging, passive response" to legal dictates spawned by the Ruiz case was transplanted by efforts by prison officials to creatively deal with problems in the system.
"We never make the case that we don't' have problems that's endemic of any correctional system in the United States," Mr. Johnson said. "The key is how you deal with those problems, and whether or not the management and leadership of the agency has a commitment to continued improvement. And I think we've demonstrated that we do."
Texas' prison system still is grappling with a shortage of correctional officers, a high attrition rate, a decline in experience and concerns about the quality of health care for inmates, which Ms. Brorby characterized as a "critical problem."
Correctional officers must deal with a new breed of inmates young, violent and facing long sentences. Such inmates have less incentive to follow rules and more incentive to try an escape. Also, gangs are a pervasive problem behind the walls and wire of Texas' prisons.
Brian Olsen, executive director of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents correctional officers, said that some correctional officers are concerned that after the Ruiz case is settled, prison officials might decide to reduce staffing.
He said that mandatory overtime to make up for the staffing shortage is a continuing problem and that low pay makes it difficult for the system to keep experienced officers who routinely leave for more lucrative jobs.
Prison officials have intensified recruiting efforts and say they are working to keep veteran officers from leaving.
Ms. Brorby suggested that the prison system has never fully recovered from problems created by a massive expansion in the 1990s. "They need to fill all the staffing positions, and they need to reduce the turnover," she said, "so people can gain in training and expertise so they have what they need to be good corrections officers."
She also hopes that scrutiny of Texas' prison system will continue and that the public won't turn a blind eye to what goes on behind prison walls and security fences.
"It's very important for a prison system to be a part of the larger community," she said. "What's gone wrong in Texas before, and in other states, is that the prison systems have become totally separated from the community..."
When that happens, she said, prisons become "their own little society" a society that usually "becomes toxic."
June 8, 2002, 12:04AM
Ruiz lawsuit wrapped upBy JANET ELLIOTT
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN -- Lawyers reached an agreement Friday in the historic Ruiz prison reform lawsuit, effectively ending 30 years of federal control of Texas prisons.
"One federal lawsuit can't be responsible for a state's prison system forever," said Donna Brorby, a San Francisco lawyer who has represented Texas prison inmates since 1978.
Brorby and co-counsel Gail Saliterman, along with lawyers for the state, met Friday for about an hour with U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice. They told Justice they would not try to prevent the expiration of his jurisdiction in the case, scheduled for July 1.
As early as next week, Justice is expected to sign a one-page order ending the case named after the inmate who filed a civil rights complaint in 1972, David Ruiz.
Gregory Coleman, outside counsel for the state, said Justice is "very, very pleased that the parties are working together."
One year ago, Justice ended population caps and nearly all other controls he had placed on the state's prison system. But Justice, a senior judge in Austin, refused to completely end the lawsuit because of continuing concerns about excessive use of force against inmates, inmate-on-inmate violence and the solitary confinement of mentally ill prisoners.
Brorby said that while serious problems remain in those areas, she decided it would be better for prison officials to concentrate their efforts on improving conditions rather than responding to legal briefs.
She said the challenge for prison officials now is to stand up for the system's needs at the Legislature without using the federal case as a hammer to get more money.
Gary Johnson, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the department won't forget the lessons of the Ruiz case.
"The 30-year struggle is over, but the system has changed dramatically over the past three decades," said Johnson in a statement. "The problems were corrected and now we must move forward to reducing recidivism, increasing rehabilitation and working to be productive without having this federal overview.
"We must and we shall remember the challenges we have experienced over the last years and always strive for effective correctional policies," Johnson said.
"We have no intention of returning to the old times of the pre-Ruiz suit," said TDCJ spokesman Larry Todd.
Carl Reynolds, general counsel for the TDCJ, said the National Institute of Corrections, an arm of the U.S. Justice Department, will take over some of the monitoring functions that had been done by Brorby and her legal team.
Officials with the institute will be visiting prison units and checking documents periodically over the next two years. Their reports will be sent to Johnson and will be public information, Reynolds said.
The prisoners' lawyers had been preparing a motion to continue jurisdiction in the case based on evidence developed in the past six months.
But Brorby said she decided not to file the motion after TDCJ promised to continue taking steps to reduce force, protect inmates and provide better mental health care for psychotic inmates. Brorby also cited uncertainty about the legal future of the case.
Last year the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals told Justice to justify his continuing oversight or to terminate the case.
Coleman, former solicitor general for the state, said state government now can take over its rightful function to fully run the prison system.
"The end of this case marks a huge shift in how government ought to work," said Coleman.
Texas Attorney General John Cornyn said an end to the case is long overdue.
"I am very pleased that Mr. Ruiz's lawyer has acknowledged the improvements in the Texas prison system that have occurred in the past 30 years since this lawsuit was filed," he said.
The state also reached an agreement with Brorby to pay her legal team $1.93 million in fees for work done in the past three years. She had requested $5 million.
The case over prison conditions began in 1972 with a handwritten lawsuit filed by inmate David Ruiz.
Justice found a system so crowded that some units were operating at 200 percent of capacity, with as many as five inmates to a cell and others sleeping on hallway floors and in tents.
The lawsuits exposed a "building tender" system in which certain inmates were used as auxiliary guards. Justice prohibited inmates from exercising any authority over other prisoners.
Justice ordered improvements in sanitation and fire safety, as well as new recreational facilities and better health care. He made sure inmates had access to courts.
Texas spent billions of dollars building new prisons and making improvements. The cost of complying with Justice's orders angered many Texans, and some came to view the powerful federal judge with disdain.
In an order last June, Justice wrote that the case "has become a history unto itself." But he lauded the state for making vast improvements in a system that "at one point was incapable of description -- the conditions so pernicious, and the inmates' pain and degradation so extensive."
Most federal controls of the prison system ended in 1992 with a settlement, but Justice retained his right to monitor the state prison on issues including crowding, staffing, discipline, health care and death row.
Brorby said recent improvements in the system include training designed to reform use-of-force practices and a system of regular review of administrative segregation for mentally ill prisoners.
Brorby said her recent review found fewer "flagrantly psychotic" inmates in administrative segregation, a form of solitary confinement. Justice last year said administrative segregation units are "virtual incubators of psychoses."
During the three decades of the lawsuit, the prison population grew from 16,000 to 145,000 inmates. Brorby said current problems with the system stem from the explosion in inmates.
She said inmates have more idle time and fewer opportunities for education, work and recreation. The system continues to struggle to hire enough guards.
"The Texas prisons will never be safe and reasonable places for those who must live in them until the citizens of Texas exercise their rights and make the system more transparent so they know what is happening inside their prisons," Brorby said.
After 30 years, deal would end case sparked by prison conditions.
Saturday, June 8, 2002
The Ruiz case, Texas' long-running lawsuit over unconstitutional prison conditions, finally appears headed to an end. to the day it was filed.
The federal court began monitoring the state's prison system in response to Ruiz's successful argument that the conditions were so brutal that they amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Justice scaled back his supervision a year ago, but his signal Friday means that when the agreement is final, the Ruiz case will be closed.
Conditions of the deal: A commitment by prison officials to curb the use of excessive force by guards, to better protect vulnerable convicts from rapes and beatings by other convicts and to prevent convicts who are mentally ill and others from being improperly kept in isolation cells.
An outside agency, the National Institute of Corrections, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, would monitor conditions during the next two years, according to the agreement.
"It was a very difficult decision," Donna Brorby, the lead attorney for the prisoners, said after a two-hour, closed-door conference with Justice and attorneys representing the state. "Litigation such as this cannot go on forever. It cannot resolve all problems indefinitely. . . . The time has come for this case to end."
Although she acknowledged that conditions "have changed drastically in every way" since she joined the case in 1978, Brorby cautioned that her recent inspections at eight prisons confirmed that abuses continue despite the improvements.
Carl Reynolds, general counsel for the Texas Board of Criminal Justice that governs the 109 prisons, and Greg Coleman, Texas' former solicitor general who has championed an end to the federal court supervision, expressed confidence that Texas prisons will continue to improve.
"We're at the threshold of a new era," Reynolds said. "We're committed to making the system better."
Even so, Brorby said "clear evidence" was found that some correctional officers still use "malicious and illegal force." In December 2001, nearly half of the "take downs" of convicts -- as prison officials call uses of force -- involved cases where a convict's hands were handcuffed behind his back at the time he was forcibly subdued, she said.
"Worse, we found a prison unit in which 10 or 12 officers, including two sergeants and a lieutenant, escorted handcuffed prisoners into the lieutenant's office, where they slapped them around, hit them in the head, the genitals with rubber batons, and demeaned them with racial epithets."
At some units, Brorby said, prison staff members are actively working to identify and protect vulnerable prisoners from being assaulted by other prisoners. At others, protection and extortion rackets are active -- and inmates must join gangs as a last resort for protection, then cannot leave the gangs "because the system has no safe place for ex-gang members."
Despite improved screening and diagnosis policies to ensure that prisoners who are mentally ill receive proper treatment, and are not improperly locked in isolation cells, Brorby said many such prisoners are still ending up there without adequate medical care.
Asked about the future for Texas prisons, Brorby said, "I'm going to be holding my breath." Prison officials have repeatedly denied that any remaining problems indicate the system is unconstitutional, unlike in 1972, when beatings and rapes, lack of medical care and other abuses made prison life in Texas a draconian and often deadly experience. But since Ruiz filed his handwritten lawsuit and since Justice agreed that conditions were deplorable and illegal and brought Texas prisons under his control, the system has changed.
Texas' prison system has grown from about 17,000 convicts in 1972 to more than 150,000 prisoners at the height of prison expansion in the late 1990s. More than $2 billion has been spent to build nearly a hundred prisons since 1972. And a final judgment intended to close the case 10 years ago gave way to rekindled legal wrangling, amid new laws passed by Congress to make such class-action prisoner lawsuits nearly impossible to file. Two other long-running federal court cases involving Texas prisons remain -- one involving inmates' mail, the other involving integration. But the Ruiz case is the biggest and has brought sweeping reforms to the prison system.
State officials cheered Friday's tentative agreement.
Attorney General John Cornyn said he was "very pleased."
Gary Johnson, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said, "This 30-year struggle is over, but the system has changed dramatically. The problems were corrected, and now we must move forward to reducing recidivism, increasing rehabilitation and working to be productive without having this federal overview."
His spokesman, Larry Todd, said Johnson and other top prison officials "have no intention of returning to the old times of the pre-Ruiz suit. . . . Our employees are professionals who don't coddle inmates, but they don't abuse them either."
Advocacy groups expressed surprise and dismay at Friday's development. Stuart DeLuca, board chairman of the Texas Inmate Families Association, said prison officials will have to ensure that the improvements of the past are not undone in coming years.
"This is the worst thing that could happen," said Jerry Boswell, Texas director of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, an international advocacy group that has investigated prison medical-treatment issues. "Without additional outside oversight, the system will have no incentive to continue improving."
Brorby echoed those sentiments, saying that even the outside oversight agreed to by the state may not be enough.
"Texas prisons will never be safe and reasonable places for those who must live in them until the citizens of Texas exercise their rights and make the system more transparent so they know what is happening inside their prisons," she said.
Ruiz remains in prison at the Goree Unit near Huntsville, serving a life term for armed robbery in Austin.
The Ruiz case through the years
June 29, 1972: Imprisoned Austin armed robber David Ruiz files a civil rights lawsuit against the Texas Department of Corrections alleging inhumane and unconstitutional living conditions.
April 12, 1974: Similar lawsuits filed by seven other convicts are consolidated into one, and U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice is assigned the case.
Dec. 12, 1974: Justice gives the case class-action status.
Oct . 2, 1978: The case goes to trial in Houston. About 349 witnesses testify before the trial ends Sept. 20, 1979, in what marks the longest trial on prison conditions in U.S. history.
Dec . 12, 1980: Justice rules that confinement inside Texas prisons constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Overcrowding, understaffing, brutality, substandard medical care and policies that allow convict bosses -- called building tenders-- to manage some cellblocks are among the violations cited.
January 1981: Justice orders sweeping improvements in Texas' prison system, at the time the nation's largest, and sets deadlines for the problems to be corrected.
April 21, 1982: The state agrees to halt the use of building tenders and to hire additional guards. Cellblock violence begins to increase as rival gangs form to fill the void left by the building tenders.
Feb. 19, 1985: Citing dangerous conditions, a state consultant's report recommends the state spend $870 million during the next decade to build prisons and upgrade existing ones.
July 1986: After determining that many problems have not been fixed, amid an onslaught of reports of new brutality inside Texas prisons, Justice threatens the state with fines of $800,000 a day.
Jan. 5, 1987: Justice holds the state in contempt of court for not complying with his orders.
Jan. 9, 1987: Gov.-elect Bill Clements, Attorney General Jim Mattox and other top state officials meet with Justice in a highly unusual, face-to-face bid to avoid the fines.
March 13, 1987: Justice drops the threat of fines after the state shows it is making progress to correct its prison problems.
November 1987: Texas voters authorize $500 million in bonds to build prisons.
November 1990: Voters approve $642 million more in bonds to add 25,300 prison beds, including 12,000 drug- and alcohol-treatment beds.
Dec . 11, 1992: Justice signs an order terminating the case but leaves the longstanding court mandates in place.
May 21, 1996: State Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, and state Sen. Buster Brown, R-Lake Jackson, file to intervene in the case in a bid to close it.
Nov. 20, 1998: 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans allows Brown and Culberson to intervene after citing a new federal law that Culberson helped to write. Justice had several times denied them entry into the case.
Jan. 21, 1999: Ordered by the 5th Circuit to hold a hearing on whether the case should be closed, Justice opens a five-week trial in Austin.
March 1, 1999: On a deadline set by the appellate court for a decision, Justice rules that unconstitutional conditions remain in Texas prisons and the case should not be closed. State officials promise an appeal.
March 20, 2001: 5th Circuit overrules Justice and urges him to end the case.
June 18, 2001: Justice scales back federal oversight of staffing, support services, discipline, access to courts, crowding, health services and death row in Texas prisons. But he says unconstitutional practices remain a problem concerning inmate safety, officers' use of force and the segregation of some inmates.
January 2002: Plaintiffs' attorneys begin touring state prisons to verify whether problems remain in protecting vulnerable convicts, in using excessive force by guards and in housing the mentally ill and others in isolation cells. Their report validates that problems continue to exist despite policies and efforts to resolve them.
Friday: Realizing the case soon will be closed anyway, if not by Justice then by the appellate court, the plaintiffs' attorneys negotiate a final agreement with the state to end the case and allow other outside monitoring of some key concerns.
Sources: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, court filings, staff research
I thought he would die before he turned it lose?
Dubbed the "Real Governor of Texas" because of his control over the state prison system and his sweeping rulings on desegregation and bilingual education, Justice has brought substantial reform to Texas government in his more than 30 years on the federal bench. He was appointed a federal judge in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson. A former trial lawyer and federal prosecutor, Justice oversaw the virtual integration of all Texas public schools and, in a 1981 case, ruled that bilingual education should apply to all 12 public school grades.
His most famous decision, however, resulted in a complete overhaul of the state's prison system, the 1972 Ruiz vs. Estelle lawsuit, in which he declared Texas prisons to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment or "cruel and unusual punishment" clause. The ruling led to millions of dollars in state spending on new prisons in the 1980s and 1990s. His ruling in Plyer vs. Doe, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, allowed the children of undocumented aliens to attend public schools without payment of tuition.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.