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Texas Prison Reform Suit May Reopen

In 1972, a Texas state prisoner, David Ruiz, filed a lawsuit in Federal Court alleging many conditions in the Texas prison system violated the constitutional rights of those incarcerated. The suit was consolidated with other Texas prisoners' complaints and certified as a class action suit. It would become one of the most costly and sweeping state prison reform suits in the nation's history.

In 1980, eight years after Ruiz had filed his suit, the case went to trial in the Southern District of Texas before Judge William Wayne Justice. At the conclusion of the 159 day trial, Judge Justice found that many of the conditions and practices of the Texas prison system did indeed violate fundamental constitutional rights of those incarcerated in the Texas Department of Corrections, and ordered immediate changes. Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F.Supp. 1265 (S.D. Tex. 1980) affirmed in part, modified in part, reversed on other grounds 679 F.2d 1115 (5th Cir. 1982). Several of the court ordered remedies included: reduction of overcrowding and placing a population cap of 95% of rated capacity, elimination of the "building tender" system which placed some prisoners in authority over other prisoners, improvement of access to the courts, improvement in recreation programs, and improvement in all areas of medical care for prisoners. The court also appointed Special Masters to assist prison officials in meeting the court's orders and to provide periodic progress reports.

Just over a year ago, in December of 1992, Judge Justice signed the final decree in the Ruiz suit, ending 20 years of litigation -- citing the "remarkable and palpable change" that had occurred in the Texas prison system. However, Judge Justice was without reservation in warning prison officials that their failure to continue to adhere to the constitutional standards set out in the court's order would result in the court utilizing its continuing jurisdiction to find contempt and reopen the case.

It seems that just 15 months later, Texas prison officials may not be ready to manage their own affairs without court intervention. On March 30, 1994, Judge Justice signed an order giving the Texas Attorney General's Office and prison officials 60 days to investigate and file a report with the court in response to several motions and affidavits filed by inmates claiming the denial of proper medical treatment. Judge Justice has stated that after the state responds he will decide whether to conduct a hearing or reopen the case.

In his order, Judge Justice cites complaints that many prisoners at the Ramsey I unit have been denied proper medical treatment, that prisoners with AIDS are denied medical care, and that prisoners are assigned to perform work that they should not do because of their medical conditions. In the order, Judge Justice states, "Petitioners allege that an inmate, Frank P., had a piece of metal lodged in his stomach; was denied medical care; and had to perform surgery on himself to remove the metal, and there are allegations that a prisoner died as a result of a lack of medical treatment. The inmate allegedly was experiencing severe abdominal pain and vomiting; attempted to obtain medical treatment, but was told to take Maalox, and died in his cell after several days."

Of special interest to Texas prisoners is a new organization, Prisoners' Rights Organization for Incarcerated Texans (PROFIT), which is seeking both prisoners and civilians who are sympathetic to the organization's goals of improving Texas prisoners' conditions. PROFIT is presently engaged in gathering information in order to get Ruiz reopened. Texas prisoners who have experienced denial of medical treatment (or other violations of the Ruiz decree) should promptly contact one of the attorneys for the Ruiz suit: Donna Brobry or William Bennett, whose addresses should be available in each unit's law library. Persons interested in PROFIT may contact on of the following for more information: David Ruiz #392276, Rt. 1 Box 150 Tennessee Colony, IX 75884 Kim Brown, President PO Box 2444 Granbury, IX 76048

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Related legal case

Ruiz v. Estelle