Landmark Prison Oversight Case Ends

U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice
U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice (Photo By Alan Pogue)

On June 17, after nearly 30 years of litigation and judicial wrangling, U.S. District Court Judge William Wayne Justice signed the final order bringing to a close the historic federal class action case Ruiz v. Johnson, which has changed the face of Texas' prison system through mandated federal judicial oversight. Lawyers who have worked the case on inmates' behalf for over two decades announced last week that they had negotiated a settlement with the state and would not seek to keep oversight within the federal judiciary.

"It is a good decision for the prison system, and for all the parties involved, to end this federal litigation in the way that we have planned," said Donna Brobry, who has been the lead attorney for prisoner plaintiff David Ruiz and other prisoners in the suit since 1978. Brobry could have filed additional motions to try and sustain Ruiz, but said lawyers for both the prisoners and the state preferred a compromise that would contain some additional federal oversight. As part of the settlement, Brobry said, the National Institute of Corrections, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, will continue to provide oversight and make further recommendations to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice over the next two years. Meanwhile, the TDCJ has agreed to set up a compliance office within the department.

In 1972, Ruiz, an Austin native who is serving life in prison for armed robbery, and other prisoner plaintiffs filed a federal suit against the TDCJ claiming that Texas prison conditions violated inmates' constitutional right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. After three years of discovery and a trial that lasted a record 159 days, Judge Justice agreed in December 1980 and placed the system under federal oversight. In his court order, Justice vividly detailed and condemned the "staggering magnitude" of atrocities in Texas prisons, including excessive violence and beatings that ended in death, violent and frequent rapes of inmates, and denial of access to general as well as mental health care. "This court regretfully acknowledged that it is impossible for a written opinion to convey the pernicious conditions and the pain and degradation which ordinary inmates suffer within TDC prison walls," Justice wrote.

The mandate to end to federal oversight of the TDCJ came from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last fall, after a process that began in 1996 with a challenge by State Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, and Sen. Buster Brown, R-Lake Jackson. The reps cited the then-new federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, which according to court records "calls for immediate termination of any prospective relief in any civil action with respect to prison conditions," unless the relief is limited in scope and is the "least intrusive" remedy. Justice's federal oversight, they argued, was hardly limited or non-intrusive. In 1998 the Fifth Circuit allowed the legislators' intervention in the suit, and ordered Justice to hold a hearing. A year later, Justice presided over a five-week trial and ruled once again that unconstitutional conditions persisted within TDCJ-run prisons. "Of course, transformation does not, in and of itself, a constitutional institution make," Justice wrote in 1999. "Although a legitimate source of pride, the prison system's continuing evolution neither proves compliance with the constitution, nor lowers the basic standards of humanity that the constitution demands." In March 2001, the Fifth Circuit overruled Justice's decision asking that the case be closed.

While Brobry said she has been impressed by improvements the state has made since Ruiz, she remains concerned that a "culture still exists that creates abuse." As recently as March, while conducting a round of inspections at eight Texas prisons, Brobry said she witnessed mistreatment of inmates -- including excessive use of force. "Commonly, [guards] will take handcuffed prisoners and slam them into the ground to show them who's boss." However, she added, "[Now] they really do seem to want to run a decent and humane prison."

But from the very beginning, the road to "decent" has been circuitous. Shortly after making his historic ruling, Judge Justice ordered a list of sweeping changes for TDCJ. The state resisted for nearly five years, until Justice threatened to impose daily fines of $800,000 for every day TDCJ remained non-compliant. In 1987, a statewide bond passed that gave TDCJ $500 million to build new prisons and hire more and better-trained guards. (In 1990 another bond allotted an additional $600 million for prison improvements.) In 1992 Justice closed the litigation, but left the reform mandates and oversight in place.

Brobry says she had been trying to get TDCJ's lawyers to come to the negotiating table since 1998, but they refused. "I've been actually trying to get the state to talk about a way to end in a way we can control, a plan that could take us into the post-Ruiz world," she said. Until early this year, the state was "intent on a legal victory," she said. She's hopeful that last week's settlement will work out -- and now that Justice has signed the final order, she intends to "parole" herself from the case.

Will Brobry continue to oversee TDCJ's process? "There's a way in which I've served my time, and now I've got my parole," she said, "and there's a way in which this will be my life's work. I'll continue to take an interest and to discuss some of the aspects of the work to be done." She believes the ACLU's Prison and Jail Accountability Project will now be the main torchbearers. For their part, the ACLU's Meredith Roundtree said her organization is "cautiously optimistic" about the TDCJ's continued success, and is committed to monitoring prison conditions.

To Brobry, making sure prisons are humane should be important to everyone. "When people treat people with disrespect and in a dehumanizing way, it creates problems of anger and hatred," she said. "Prison does not have to be a battle zone. And these people will be coming back into the community. What kind of person do you want to come home?"

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