Texas Execution Information Center


Ruiz v. Estelle and Prison Overcrowding

Readers of our execution reports notice that the criminals who were executed for capital murder sometimes had prior prison records, and that they were paroled or released from prison early and committed murder soon afterwards. This naturally raises the questions, "Why were so many prisoners paroled early?" "Why were the same prisoners paroled over and over?" To find out why, you must learn about a lawsuit that was brought against the Texas prison system in the 1970's and the rulings of U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice.



In the 1800's and early 1900's, Texas prisons were known for their severity and brutality. Prisoners were poorly clothed, poorly fed, denied medical treatment, and harshly disciplined with straps. As late as the 1940's, the system was overcrowded, prison officials were corrupt, and prisoners mutilated themselves to get out of work. Through a growing public outcry, fueled in part by investigative media journalism, the state instituted an era of reform.

In 1947, O.B. Ellis was hired as general manager of the Texas prison system. Supported by increased funding from the legislature, Ellis first overhauled the prison's farming program. By instituting improvements in agricultural technology, as well as a "no work, no eat" rule, the prison system changed from a consumer of agricultural products to a producer of cattle and vegetables, which were sold to other state institutions. Ellis' other programs included a psychiatric treatment center, compulsory schooling, a GED program, and alcoholism counseling. By the time of Ellis' death in 1961, Texas prisons had moved from among the worst in the nation to among the best, and had become a source of pride to the state.

Ellis was succeeded by George J. Beto, who continued and expanded his predecessor's policies. Beto opened a unit for first offenders, in order to segregate them from the more hardened criminals. He also added collegiate and vocational programs, as well as pre-release counseling, to aid prisoners in functioning in free society after their release. Beto retired in 1972.

Although the prison system had made drastic changes in the past 25 years to successfully improve conditions inside, there were forces working in the background that put new, intense strains on it. The U.S. crime rate skyrocketed in the 1960's, and Texas was no exception. Furthermore, the federal government's primary response was to channel millions of dollars of aid to state law enforcement efforts, which led to more efficient police work, speedier disposition of criminal cases, and a glut of inmates in the state's prisons. When W. J. Estelle Jr. succeeded Beto in 1972, the system had 16,100 prisoners housed in 14 units. In eleven years, the system more than doubled to 36,600 inmates.

To house the ever-increasing number of prisoners, the state cut back in some areas, including recreation and medical care. Severely understaffed, the prison used inmates called "building tenders" as guards, giving them broad disciplinary authority over other inmates. Estelle believed in and tried to continue the agricultural and educational programs of Ellis and Beto, but he also emphasized the need for discipline under the prisons' crowded conditions.


Ruiz v. Estelle

In 1972, a prisoner named David Ruiz brought a civil action against W. J. Estelle, Director of the Texas Department of Corrections. Ruiz' lawsuit alleged that confinement in the Texas prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Seven other inmates filed similar lawsuits, and in 1974, U. S. District Judge William Wayne Justice combined them into a class action, representing all past, present, and future inmates under TDC jurisdiction. The inmate plaintiffs were joined by the United States as plaintiff-intervenor. An extensive discovery process was conducted, and trial commenced on 2 October 1978 in Houston. The trial lasted 159 days while 349 witnesses testified and 1,565 exhibits were presented.

Judge Justice issued his first ruling on 12 December 1980. It was expanded in a consent decree issued on 20 April 1981. In these rulings, Justice declared that incarceration in the Texas Department of Corrections was unconstitutional. Among his findings were: the system was overcrowded, health and safety standards were inadequate, there were too few guards, brutality towards prisoners existed, psychiatric and medical care was poor, inmates were denied due process in disciplinary hearings, and inmates had too little access to the courts. To remedy the situation, Justice ordered sweeping, expensive changes. To enforce his ruling, Justice set a timetable and appointed a special master to oversee the prisons. For over two decades, every aspect of the Texas prison system - from staffing and health care to architectural design - was under Justice's control.

Justice's ruling was upheld by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1982.



While Judge Justice's ruling covered many areas, the one that proved to be the most difficult to solve, and had the most profound effect on crime in Texas, was the order to reduce overcrowding. To meet Justice's standards, the state was going to have to launch an extensive prison building program. Here, they were constrained by two factors. One was budget. In 1983, Estelle received only half of the amount of money he requested for the upcoming two-year budget cycle. The second factor was citizen resistance. While the citizens of Texas realized that new prisons had to be built, no one wanted them built in their areas. This made it difficult to acquire land and build prisons even after funding had been obtained. The building program was slowed even further by Justice's architectural requirements, which specified details like how much space each prisoner must be allotted and how many recreational facilities, and of what type, must be provided.

With the expansion program proceeding slowly, Justice's prison population limits were bearing down. In 1982, Texas began housing inmates in tents, but Justice soon ruled against the usage of tents. He also prohibited the state from using converted facilities, such as decommissioned military bases and warehouses. In the spring of 1982, the system had no choice but to close its doors to new prisoners. Instead of being sent to prison, convicted felons were housed in county jails, which quickly became overcrowded as well. Justice then ruled that the state had to compensate the counties on a per-prisoner, per-diem basis for housing state prisoners in their jails. If the state was to pay the counties according to Justice's formula, the amount would literally have been millions of dollars per day.

Through this series of rulings, William Wayne Justice made it impossible for the state to do anything but the one thing it wanted the least: it had to release large numbers of felons. There simply was no place to put them, and Justice had thwarted all of the state's attempts to deal with the overcrowding problem in any other fashion. Therefore, the state legislature approved a "revolving door" parole policy. Instead of requiring that prisoners serve at least one-third of their sentences before being eligible for parole, the parole board was instructed to release as many prisoners as was necessary to be able to accept new prisoners and still meet Judge Justice's population caps. Most of the prisoners released were convicted of "lesser" felonies like burglary, car theft, and simple assault, but many had already been released multiple times. In some cases, felons were released after serving less than one percent of their sentences.



Unfortunately, many of the prisoners who were granted early release made poor use of their freedom. The violent crime rate in Texas rose 31 percent in the first six years after Justice's ruling. In 1980, the violent crime rate in Texas was 550 per 100,000 population. By 1986, it was 659 per 100,000 population. In 1987, impatient with the state's progress in relieving the overcrowding problem, Justice threatened the state with fines. Texas did the only thing to relieve the overcrowding problem that Judge Justice had not already declared unconstitutional, which was to release even more prisoners, faster. In 1990, violent crime jumped up another 15 percent in one year, to 761 per 100,000 population. The next year saw another 10 percent jump to 840 per 100,000 population.

Justice's reforms also took their toll inside the prisons. One his mandates was to abolish the "building tenders" system of enforcing discipline. After the state complied with that order, there was an immediate and drastic increase in violence in the system. When the Ruiz trial began in 1978, there were no murders inside any prison in Texas. In 1983, there were ten inmate murders. In 1984, 25 prisoners were killed and 404 injured in prison violence. In 1985, there were 27 killed and 215 injured. To combat the unprecedented wave of violence within the system, prison officials began using "administrative segregation" (i.e. solitary confinement) to maintain control.

In October 1983, J. W. Estelle resigned as TDC director. The system had four directors over the next four years.

Figure 1. Violent Crime Rate in Texas, 1960-2013
Figure 1. Violent Crime Rate in Texas, 1960-2013

Return to Normalcy

Judge Justice enforced his 1981 consent decree in Ruiz v. Estelle by way of numerous additional rulings from the bench. In 1992, he entered a "Final Judgment" that vacated all of his previous orders concerning the prison system and lifted many of the restrictions placed on it, including the previous population caps. The violent crime rate began dropping immediately. In 1992, it dropped by 4 percent. It then dropped by a further 3 to 7 percent every year for the next six consecutive years. By 2000, the violent crime rate in Texas was finally back down to pre-Ruiz levels.

Despite the fact that most of the problems addressed by Ruiz had effectively been resolved, Justice continued to exercise oversight over the prison system. In 1996, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) filed a motion urging Justice to end his oversight, claiming that it had solved all Ruiz-related problems and the state had "transformed its prison system into one of the best-administered, most modern systems in the United States." The state argued that the requirements of the 1992 Final Judgment had been met in full, and thus there was no reason for its continued existence. Attorneys for Ruiz and the other plaintiffs responded that the Final Judgment must remain in force, not because the required reforms had not been met or that further reforms were necessary, but as a guarantee that the prisons would not "backslide" to their former conditions.

While the litigants were preparing for this new legal battle, the U.S. Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) in 1996. This law was enacted in response to a wave of lawsuits brought by prisoners and was designed to stop what lawmakers saw as abuse of the federal prison litigation process.

Justice issued his decision 1 March 1999. Acknowledging the state's progress in improving conditions for inmates, Justice terminated federal oversight of several areas of Texas prisons, including overcrowding, staffing, and health services, but he declined to vacate the Final Judgment, listing three issues not yet resolved: the use of administrative segregation, the use of excessive force by correctional officers, and the lack of inmate safety against assault by other prisoners. Justice also ruled that the PLRA violated the separation of powers clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The state of Texas appealed Justice's ruling. On 20 March 2001, the Fifth Circuit reversed Justice's 1999 opinion, finding the PLRA to be Constitutional and declaring his reasons for refusing to vacate his Final Judgment to be inadequate. In writing the opinion of the court, Judge Carl Stewart expressed "dismay" at Justice's slowness in disposing of the Ruiz case and gave him ninety days to either issue a new ruling or terminate the 1992 judgment. Judge Reynaldo Garza concurred, noting that in the 1970s, he was the Chief Judge who assigned Ruiz's case to Judge Justice. While acknowledging "a big debt of gratitude to Judge W. Wayne Justice," Garza wrote, "this case has to be ended."

Justice issued his ruling exactly ninety days later. He reiterated the three areas in which he found that the TDCJ was still deficient and in violation of the U.S. Constitution. "So long as these conditions persist," Justice wrote, "this civil action will remain alive."

In 2002, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the Ruiz lawsuit, finally ending Justice's oversight over Texas prisons.


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