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Texas' Historic Ruiz Lawsuit Settled

by Donna Brorby and Meredith Martin Rountree

One of the biggest prison class actions of our time is over. As appeals by both sides were pending in the Fifth Circuit, the historic Ruiz class action lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) was dismissed by agreement of the parties. In the wake of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the question was not whether Ruiz would end, but when and how. Lawyers for both sides decided it would end in July 2002 with a transition plan, rather than by court decree.

At the time that they agreed to the settlement, lawyers for the plaintiff class of Texas state prisoners were prepared to file another round of litigation to address the remaining prison conditions problems involving TDCJ's failure to protect prisoners from other prisoners, use of force, and conditions in administrative segregation, especially for the mentally ill. Instead, the prisoners' counsel decided the better course was to settle the case when TDCJ agreed to retain National Institute of Corrections (NIC) consultants to audit its practices and advise it in these areas, and to permit former counsel for the prisoner plaintiffs to provide information to and review the findings of the NIC consultants. In addition, TDCJ created an internal department within its Office of General Counsel to monitor prison unit practices against official policies, in order to close the gap between acceptable policy and unconstitutional practice. It also committed to increase the availability of information of public interest about the prison system that prisoner advocates had previously obtained through the Ruiz litigation. Finally, the prisoner plaintiffs' lawyers' claim to $5 million (market rates) or $3 million (PLRA rates) in fees and costs was resolved for $2 million.

Because the prisoners counsel refused to agree as part of the settlement to support TDCJ's desire to vacate Judge Justice's 1999 powerful findings describing the constitutional violations in TDCJ at that time, Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F. Supp. 2d 855 (S.D. Tex. 1999), the State filed a motion to vacate the district court findings. The prisoner plaintiffs opposed and defeated that motion. Therefore, Judge Justice's 1999 Order is therefore the last judicial word in Ruiz, and the case ended without any concession that the prison system had attained constitutional conditions.

Those familiar with the Texas prison system, including prisoners, generally agree that it has changed vastly since the mid-1970's when the Ruiz litigation began. Except for the mushrooming prison population from 17,000 to 150,000 from 1975 through the present, most believe it has changed for the better. For example, in 1975, Texas provided no real medical care to prisoners; in 1999, medical experts for the Ruiz plaintiffs concluded that the medical care system that had been built under Ruiz provided excellent care to some prisoners, though it delivered substandard to poor care to a substantial minority. In the 1970's and 1980's, Texas relied on prisoner guards to maintain order by force and violence, and free world guards were unrestrained in their use of force against prisoners. Now, the prisoner guards are history, and excessive and unnecessary force usually takes the form of take-downs and pepper spray; serious injuries like broken bones in use of force incidents are rare. In the 1970's and early 1980's, the seriously mentally ill were warehoused in an isolated cellblock reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; now at least some of them are being treated in prison based mental hospitals that the Ruiz prisoner plaintiffs' experts testified rendered good care.

Prisoners and their counsel and other activists acknowledged improvements but felt that practices and conditions still were cruel and unusual. In the post-PLRA hostile litigation environment, however, Ruiz counsel felt that the Ruiz case was an increasingly weak vehicle for continuing the fight for reform. The improvements the prisoners won since the 1970's were making the State and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals impatient with arguments that conditions remained unconstitutional. In addition, the Fifth Circuit, through a series of rulings limiting what the prisoners could continue challenging within Ruiz, made it clear that it thought the remaining constitutional violations were not sufficiently related to the original lawsuit to be considered part of Ruiz, raising the possibility that the existing problems might be better tackled through a new lawsuit. By the time the settlement was entered, the end of Ruiz was in sight, though we hope, not the end of reform. See: Ruiz v. Johnson, USDC (SD TX) case no. H-78-987.

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Related legal case

Ruiz v. Johnson