How They Ruined Our Prisons

Judge Justice is wrong. The governor is wrong. The Legislature is wrong. And the reformers are wrong. The answer to the Texas prison crisis is to run the jails the same way we did twenty years ago.

In the file room of the fifth floor of the federal courthouse in downtown Houston, there’s a sheet of paper that has eclipsed the Texas constitution, the laws of our Legislature, and traditions that have guided us since the days of the Republic. It’s an ordinary piece of paper, a white sheet of onionskin, legal size. Words formed of block letters are written across its face, in ballpoint ink so pale that it appears to be gray. The handwriting is steady and careful; the writer apparently used a slip of pasteboard to guide his hand, because the bottoms of his letters all stop at precisely the same point, as if on an invisible line. The first words written on the page are those of a pauper’s oath, “Motion To Proceed In Forma Pauperis.” They were not intended to be but they have become words of irony. In the past five years, that sheet of paper and thousands of others indexed to it—the text and proceedings of the Ruiz v. Estelle case—have cost Texas taxpayers more than $150 million, including $4 million in legal fees alone. During the next ten years the suit could cost the state nearly $1 billion more.

The man whose signature appears beneath the writing is David R. Ruiz, a diminutive, intense convict with only seven years of formal education. In June 1972, when he penned his suit against employees of the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC), the nation’s largest prison system, he was only 29. In the years since then, Ruiz has become a symbol of courage and tenacity, a figure mentioned almost daily in our press. In some quarters he’s a folk hero, the little man who beat a big, oppressive system, a David who brought a Goliath low. David Ruiz is the kind of man whom the Austin American-Statesman, without any cynicism, could quote describing himself as “a person whose only aims, hopes and desires are to improve, always to improve, and to contribute to humanity.” He is the standard-bearer of the Texas movement for penal reform.

But David Ruiz is no hero. He’s hardly deserving of admiration at all. In 1972 he already had a long prison record, for robberies he later admitted he had committed. After four stretches in reform school, Ruiz first went to prison in 1960 on an armed robbery charge. Released in 1968, he returned before the close of the year with three concurrent sentences, for another ill-fated stickup and two counts of robbery by assault. In June 1972 he was also wanted for murder on a warrant out of Ohio, where he had spent a part of the brief seven months between his prison terms. David Resendez Ruiz had not, as the wardens would say, been sent to prison for singing too loud in church.

He’d been less that a choirboy while wearing the white uniform of a Texas convict, too. During the trial of his lawsuit, he admitted that he had stabbed “approximately three or four” of his fellow inmates. He had escaped once and had several times been found with weapons. He had been put in solitary confinement some fifteen times for assaultiveness and had been denied parole for the same reason. David Ruiz didn’t show much respect for the law or for the rights of others. His explanation for one of the stabbings was “He had his hand in his pocket. I didn’t know what he had in his pocket, so I had a knife myself, and I used it.” Yet during his career as a convict, he’d filed a dozen suits alleging that the Texas Department of Corrections had engaged in unlawful practices and violated his rights. David Ruiz hasn’t shown much regard for the truth either. He is now back in prison, this time for aggravated perjury. Some of the charges he made in his petition weren’t credible, even by the farthest stretch of the imagination. For example, he asserted that the cells in which he had been confined—in various unairconditioned Texas prisons—were cold in May, August, and September. The question his suit raised was, Does a man like this, a hardened criminal, deserve the rights the rest of us have?

But Ruiz wasn’t the first or only convict to sue the Texas prison system, and in April 1974, after federal district judge William Wayne Justice set the Ruiz case on his docket, the judge married it to the suits of seven other prisoners. The most important allegations in their petitions concerned punishments administered to disciplinary violators in prison, an issue that federal judges had come to regard during the sixties as invoking constitutional protection. Using the prisoners’ petitions as a basis, Judge Justice engineered a proceeding—it isn’t over yet—in which issues not mentioned by the petitioners, like living space, recreation programs, and even prison landfill operations, also came under his review. As if the expert lawyers he appointed to represent the plaintiffs were not enough, the judge also brought in the United States Department of Justice as an adversary to the State of Texas. The trial of Ruiz v. Estelle , the most thorough in penal history, lasted eight months and heard 349 witnesses, most of them convicts. The result was a lengthy opinion from Judge Justice, followed by reams of court-approved settlement agreements, all aimed at reforming the prison system.

If you have ever visited a prison, it is easy to comprehend the desire for reform. Prisons are ugly, frightening places, and there is something fundamental in human nature that recoils from the idea of men and women locked up. I have toured all 27 Texas prison units. I talked to wardens, guards, shop and field supervisors, educators, and doctors. I looked at solitary confinement wings, cellblocks where transvestites were segregated, packing plants, canneries, and industrial shops. I sat in on disciplinary hearings, I listened at the doors of classrooms, I ate in prison cafeterias. What I learned was that prisons are inherently disheartening. They are places where men turn beets

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