In June 1972, David Ruiz, a state prisoner in Texas, filed a pro se lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against officials of the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. The plaintiff asked for declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that the conditions of his confinement violated his constitutional rights. In the spring of 1974, a court order consolidated the case with the lawsuits of seven other TDC inmates (Montana v. Beto, Soto v. Estelle, Hilliard v. Estelle, Winchester v. Estelle, Randall v. Estelle, Pardo v. Estelle, and Johnson v. Estelle). Some of these cases were pending in the adjoining U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, location of the main Texas prison (Huntsville). The resulting single consolidated civil action, captioned Ruiz v. Estelle, ultimately proceeded in the Southern District of Texas; however, the Eastern District’s Judge W. Wayne Justice was assigned to preside over the consolidated case (an unrelated earlier order allowed federal District Judges in Texas to sit, if assigned, in any district in the state). The unpublished May 30, 1978, order moving the action to the Southern District of Texas granted the defendants’ transfer motion, which had cited the state’s logistical and security concerns associated with moving hundreds of inmate witnesses from the Southern District, where most of them were housed, to a trial in the Eastern District.
Collectively, the plaintiff class challenged the TDC prisons’ overcrowding, security and supervision, health care, disciplinary procedures, limitations on access to courts, and deficiencies in fire safety, sanitation, work safety and hygiene. Private counsel was appointed to represent the indigent plaintiffs, and the United States was ordered to appear in the case as amicus curiae. Subsequently, an amended complaint was filed. It alleged that the TDC subjected prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment (by inadequately providing for their personal security and safety, by failing to provide minimally adequate medical care, and by forcing them to live and work under unsafe conditions), and that the TDC deprived prisoner of due process through interfering with their access to lawyers and the courts (by impeding communications and punishing such communications).
In December 1974, over objection of the TDC, the court granted the motion of the United States to intervene as a plaintiff and permitted the action to be maintained as a class action. The TDC’s effort to seek a writ of mandamus to block the United States’ participation in the case was denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In re Estelle, 516 F.2d 480 (5th Cir. 1975) (Circuit Judge Tuttle). The Fifth Circuit’s July 24, 1975, ruling also vacated a stay of proceedings it had issued the prior January, at the TDC’s request. Discovery proceedings thus resumed and continued through 1977.
During this pre-trial period, Judge Justice issued several unpublished protective orders enjoining TDC officials from conduct against plaintiffs’ interests based upon their participation in the case. A June, 20, 1974, consent order enjoined the TDC from interfering with the plaintiffs’ consultations with their attorneys and from case-related threats, harassment, or discipline. On January 20, 1975, a supplemental order protected plaintiffs’ access to prison law libraries and to legal mail. After violations of the two previous protective orders were shown in hearings, Judge Justice issued a more comprehensive order on December 30, 1975. It enjoined TDC officials from interfering with plaintiffs’ access to counsel and the courts, and from case-related retaliation. The TDC appealed aspects of this twenty-part unpublished order, claiming that it created a special class of privileged inmates. The Fifth Circuit, however, affirmed the order as supported by the record made before Judge Justice of threats, intimidation, coercion, punishment and discrimination against the plaintiffs as a response to their participation in the litigation. Ruiz v. Estelle, 550 F.2d 238 (5th Cir. 1977) (per curiam).
Trial commenced in Houston, Texas, on October 2, 1978. 159 days of trial occurred over the next eleven months, with more than 300 witnesses testifying and presentation of more than 1500 exhibits, including a life-size model of a forty-five square foot prison cell. (A three-month delay during the trial resulted from the defendants’ opposition to a mid-trial order attempting to return the case to Tyler, Texas (the Eastern District). The order resulted from the fact that most incarcerated witnesses had, by then, testified. The defendants successfully applied to the Fifth Circuit for a writ of prohibition to block the transfer and, accordingly, trial resumed in the Houston on April 2, 1979.) On September 20, 1979, the final day of trial on the merits, the Judge Justice entered an order permitting all inmates of the TDC who had testified during the trial the opportunity to transfer to federal custody in order to avoid negative retaliation. Within two months, eighty-one inmates had elected to transfer to the federal system.
In a lengthy post-trial order issued on December 12, 1980, the district court granted declaratory and injunctive relief to the plaintiffs. Judge Justice found that the prisons were grossly overcrowded, the recreational facilities were wholly inadequate, health care was inadequate, hearing procedures for disciplinary actions were inadequate, prisoner access to courts was inadequate, and fire safety and sanitation standards violated state law and the Constitution. Constitutional violations existed in each of these categories, according to the court, which also noted that the totality of these conditions (should a reviewing court disagree in its view of the shortcomings of one or more categories) violated the prisoners’ constitutional rights. The court ordered the parties to confer in an effort to develop a consent decree proposal, but added that if the parties could not come to an agreement, they must submit separate proposals to the court. The judge also stated he would appoint special masters to monitor compliance once the decree was in place. Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F.Supp. 1265 (S.D. Tex. 1980). The defendants appealed.
On March 3, 1981, the district court (Judge Justice) signed a partial consent decree, which was subsequently filed on April 20, 1981. It covered physical examinations and mental health monitoring of inmates entering into solitary confinement, diet of inmates in solitary confinement, use and regulation of chemical agents, work safety, hygiene, and administrative segregation. The issue of appointment of a special master remained unresolved. (A copy of the decree exists as Appendix A to a later appellate opinion, Ruiz v. Estelle, 679 F.2d 1115 (5th Cir. 1982).) The district court contemporaneously issued an injunctive order for issues not covered by the consent decree, such as overcrowding, managerial reorganization of prison units, security and safety, use of the Huntsville Unit Hospital, discipline, access to the courts, fire safety, and compliance with state health and safety laws. Construction of new prison units and modification of existing ones were also covered by the Court’s order. (As amended on May 1, 1981, the court’s injunction was published as an appendix to a later Fifth Circuit ruling, Ruiz v. Estelle, 666 F.2d 854 (5th Cir. 1982).)
The defendants asked the Fifth Circuit to stay portions of the district court's injunctive order, pending appeal. On June 26, 1981, the appellate court partially granted the defendants' request. The court held: 1) that the portions of the injunction requiring single-celling of inmates, rotation of triple-celled inmates, and release of a specified number of inmates on work furlough and temporary furlough on specific dates would be stayed; 2) that the state was not entitled to a stay of that portion requiring the TDC to review the record of every inmate who has not received credit for a certain category of good time; 3) that the portion of the injunction requiring the TDC to submit a plan to the court providing for the reorganization and decentralization of the management of each unit housing more than 500 inmates and relating to the location of future units would be stayed; 4) that the portion of the injunction requiring 30-day rotation of inmates who work as building tenders” was an undue interference with the details of prison administration; and 5) that the state was entitled to present facts relating to a unit hospital to the district court, in order to determine whether the state was entitled to stay a portion of the injunction requiring downgrading of a unit hospital to use solely as an infirmary. Ruiz v. Estelle, 650 F.2d 555 (5th Cir. 1981) (per curiam).
After additional proceedings in the district court, the defendants for a second time sought that the Fifth Circuit stay some of the provisions of the injunctive decree. On January 14, 1982, the Fifth Circuit partially granted and partially denied the stay. The court required the defendants to comply within 60 days with the district court's order to provide 40 square feet per prisoner in dormitories and to achieve a specified ratio of prisoners to uniformed staff members. It stayed provisions of the decree that required the TDC to provide 60 square feet of space per prisoner, to achieve a specified prisoner to uniformed staff member ratio by certain dates, and to forbid prisoners from possessing keys even when properly supervised. Ruiz v. Estelle, 666 F.2d 854 (5th Cir. 1982) (Judge Alvin B. Rubin).
Having disposed of the stay requests, on June 23, 1982, the Fifth Circuit (Judge Rubin) reached the merits of the defendants' appeal. The court affirmed the district court's December 12, 1980 finding that the TDC imposed cruel and unusual punishment on prisoners and denied inmates due process of law, and that remedial measures were necessary. The appellate opinion narrowed the scope of relief, however, concluding that the district court inappropriately considered state law claims not raised by the parties and that some remedial measures ordered by the district court were not demonstrably required to protect constitutional rights, intruding unduly on matters of state concern. The Court upheld those portions of the district court's decree requiring the TDC to file reports on the number of inmates and space per inmate, requiring the TDC to reduce its inmate population, requiring that each inmate confined in a dormitory be provided with 40 square feet of space, requiring that the TDC preserve a verbatim record of all disciplinary hearings, requiring the TDC to give inmates in administrative segregation the opportunity for regular exercise and requiring that inmates be allowed access to courts, counsel, and public officials. The court reversed the district court's order with respect to the portions requiring the TDC to take certain steps regarding the reduction of inmate population, good time, parole, work furlough, and inmate furlough programs, and improvement of a state prison hospital. Judge Rubin wrote that the district court had properly appointed special masters and monitors to supervise implementation and compliance with its’ decree, but found that the order of reference was too sweeping in permitting the master to submit to the district court reports based on his own observations and investigations without a formal hearing. Ruiz v. Estelle, 679 F.2d 1115 (5th Cir. 1982).
After this Fifth Circuit opinion issued, the plaintiffs sought a rehearing, advising that the parties had previously settled the issues surrounding the TDC’s Huntsville Unit Hospital. They asked the court to vacate the parts of its opinion dealing with that issue and to reconsider certain other issues. On September 16, 1982, the Fifth Circuit issued a per curiam opinion partially amending their earlier opinion and vacating the portion relating to the Huntsville Unit Hospital. Addressing an agreed-upon fire safety plan, the court held that the parties were not precluded from obtaining district court approval of a remedial order that would grant additional relief. The court added that the earlier ruling that double-celling of inmates in administrative segregation did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment was did not preclude either party from seeking further relief. The Fifth Circuit adhered to its earlier ruling that the district court’s direction to the TDC to use good time, parole, and furlough programs was unduly intrusive. Ruiz v. Estelle, 688 F.2d 266 (5th Cir. 1982). Both parties sought Supreme Court review. On March 21, 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Ruiz v. Estelle, 460 U.S. 1042 (1983).
Earlier, on April 14, 1982, both parties presented the district court with a Stipulated Modification of the Consent Decree. This prohibited the TDC from allowing prisoners to have any position of authority, to assist in counting other prisoners, to possess weapons, to escort other prisoners, to influence cell assignments, or to have access to another prisoner's medical or institutional records. It also provided for a different method of dismantling the building tender system. On April 21, 1982, the district court (Judge Justice) tentatively approved the Stipulated Modification, and notice was sent to the plaintiff class. Approximately 1 percent of the plaintiff class objected and, after a hearing on the objections, the district court approved the Stipulated Modification. One inmate in the plaintiff class appealed. On February 13, 1984, the Fifth Circuit issued a per curiam opinion affirming the district court's decision to approve the Stipulated Modification, holding that it was not an abuse of discretion and that the plaintiff class had received adequate notice. Ruiz v. McKaskle, 724 F.2d 1149 (5th Cir. 1984).
In may 1985, the parties to the case filed a Stipulation Modifying Crowding Provisions of the Amended Decree (Crowding Stipulation), in which the TDC agreed to abide by capacity limits, housing standards, and confinement requirements defined in the agreement. In return, the plaintiffs agreed to forego much more stringent limits on the TDC population and changes in conditions that they had earlier requested. On July 15, 1985, the district court (Judge Justice) approved the Crowding Stipulation. On September 12, 1986, the TDC asked the district court to modify the Crowding Stipulation, allowing increased capacity of the prison system without new construction. On September 19, 1986, the district court denied the request, issuing an injunction prohibiting TDC from violating the agreement. The defendants appealed. On February 23, 1987, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision in a per curiam opinion. Ruiz v. Lynaugh, 811 F.2d 856 (5th Cir. 1987).
On March 6, 1990, Judge Justice ordered the parties to begin negotiations to bring about a comprehensive final order in the case. During the following period of negotiations, the TDC filed a motion in January 1991, seeking complete relief from the prior remedial orders. During the ensuing months, the parties filed memoranda opposing and in support of the TDC’s motion but, in July 1992, they reached agreement on the terms of a final judgment proposal. Thus, the TDC withdrew its’ motion. On August 13, 1992, the parties to the case jointly submitted their proposed final judgment, which the district court (Judge Justice) tentatively approved on August 20, 1992. Notice of the proposed consolidated final judgment was published and sent to all members of the plaintiff class, a hearing was held, and on December 11, 1992, the district court’s unpublished opinion approved the final judgment. It covered staffing, support services for inmates, discipline, administrative segregation, work health and safety, use of force, access to the courts, maintenance of facilities, programming and recreational activities, visitation, crowding, new facilities, monitoring, health services, psychiatric services, death row conditions, and enforcement procedures.
On March 25, 1996, citing Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), the TDC asked that the district court vacate its final judgment. On April 26, 1996, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) was signed into law. On May 21, 1996, the TDC asked the Court to vacate the final judgment pursuant to the PLRA, effectively ending the district court's supervision over the Texas state prison system. The TDC supplemented this motion on September 6, 1996. On September 23, 1996, the district court (Judge Justice) declined to vacate the final judgment, saying he could not rule upon the defense motions within the time periods set by the PLRA and declared the PLRA's automatic stay provision to be an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers and due process of law. The United States, a plaintiff-intervenor in the case, asked the district court to reconsider this decision, and on June 15, 1998, the district court denied that motion in an unpublished order.
In May 1996, citing the PLRA, two Texas state legislators had asked the district court to allow them to intervene in the lawsuit. On November 24, 1997, Judge Justice denied their motion, which both the plaintiffs and the TDC had opposed. An amendment to the PLRA prompted the proposed intervenors to request reconsideration, which the district court denied on January 28, 1998. The legislators appealed and, on November 20, 1998, the Fifth Circuit (Judge William Lockhart Garwood) reversed the district court's decision and remanded the case. The Fifth Circuit reasoned that the PLRA granted individual legislators the right to intervene, that the final judgment was a prisoner release order within the meaning of the PLRA, that the legislators' motion was timely, and that granting the legislators standing to intervene did not violate the Article III of the Constitution. Ruiz v. Estelle, 161 F.3d 814 (5th Cir. 1998).
On May 6, 1998, the defendants again asked the district court to terminate the final judgment pursuant to the PLRA, this time under the two-year termination provision. The court denied the request in a June 19, 1998, unpublished ruling reaffirming Judge Justice’s view that the PLRA violated the Constitution. The defendants’ September 6, 1996, supplemental motion to terminate the judgment still had not been ruled upon. The defendants petitioned the Fifth Circuit for a writ of mandamus to end the delay in the case and force the district court to rule on the motions to terminate prospective relief. On December 16, 1998, the Fifth Circuit issued a per curiam opinion, holding that the district court would not be compelled to rule immediately on the motion under the PLRA, but would have to issue a ruling within 31 days of the evidentiary hearing on the motion, which was scheduled for January 21, 1999. In re Scott, 163 F.3d 282 (5th Cir. 1998).
The court conducted an evidentiary hearing on the defendants' motions from January 21 to February 12, 1999. On March 1, 1999, in a lengthy opinion, Judge Justice ruled that he would not then terminate the final judgment order in the case. He held that his earlier order, relinquishing jurisdiction over the question of whether the classification system was inadequate, did not preclude the court from further considering the adequacy of classification, following a reduction in the prison staff performing classification functions. Judge Justice found that the 1992 consent judgment and the Constitution had been violated by the defendants’ conduct in the areas of medical and psychiatric services, administrative segregation practices (particularly as to mentally ill prisoners), prisoner safety, and guards’ use of excessive force. The court also held that the provision of the PLRA that terminated all court orders calling for prospective relief two years after its effective date violated the separation of powers principle. Ruiz v. Johnson , 37 F.Supp.2d 855 (S.D. Tex. 1999). Defendants appealed. The United States, plaintiff-intervenor, filed a cross-appeal.
The Fifth Circuit (Circuit Judge Carl E. Stewart) reversed and remanded. It held that termination of prospective relief provisions of PLRA did not violate separation of powers principles or due process; that the prison authorities were not precluded, by reason of their consent to the 1992 judgment, from reliance upon the PLRA in seeking to vacate that judgment; and that the district court’s failure to make statutory findings that the PLRA required meant the case had to be remanded. Ruiz v. U.S., 243 F.3d 941 (5th Cir. 2001).
On remand, the district court reconsidered the defendants' motions to terminate all prospective relief to the plaintiff class. Judge Justice found that constitutional violations continued to exist in three major areas: conditions of confinement in administrative segregation, the failure to provide reasonable safety to inmates against assault and abuse, and the excessive use of force by correctional officers. In those areas, the court ordered that prospective relief would continue and that new relief would also be fashioned to further correct those continuing violations. The court terminated court-ordered prospective relief in the areas of staffing, support services, discipline, administrative segregation, access to courts, visitations, crowding, monitoring by inmates' counsel, internal monitoring, health services, and death row conditions. Ruiz v. Johnson , 154 F.Supp.2d 975 (S.D. Tex. 2001). In his opinion, Judge Justice encouraged the parties to craft and propose joint remedial measures to respond to existing constitutional violations and to set a time frame for final termination of the court’s jurisdiction over the Texas prison system. He noted that the plaintiffs had already proposed that court jurisdiction terminate on June 1, 2002. Id. The defendants appealed, but the appeal was dismissed on August 31, 2001.
The parties appeared before the Court on June 7, 2002 for a final status conference. A transcript of this conference reveals that the parties had reached a stipulation addressing attorneys’ fees and all contested issues, except whether the court’s March 1, 1999, findings needed to be vacated to avoid future issue preclusion arguments. It had been agreed that the continuing problem areas in the state’s prisons would be addressed apart from the court’s jurisdiction. Accordingly, on June 17, 2002, Judge Justice ordered defendants to pay $1,379,025.25 to cover plaintiffs’ counsel fees through May 31, 2002. The court also entered a final judgment, dismissing the case with prejudice, and an order denying as “unmerited” the state’s request that the court vacate its’ prior rulings in the case.
Hundreds of boxes of documents were generated during the 30-year history of the Ruiz litigation. For those interested in reviewing more Ruiz litigation documents, including monitor reports, a vast collection of case documents is maintained by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Similarly, a collection of records related to the work of the Office of the Special Master is located in a repository maintained by the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.Kristen Sagar - 05/17/2009