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Guajardo (Texas Prison Mail) Suit Dismissed

by Matthew T. Clarke

On September 24, 2002, a federal district court in Texas dismissed the long-standing class-action lawsuit which has governed the mail system in Texas prisons for twenty-five years. The Guajardo suit resulted in three published opinions (432 F.Supp. 1373, 580 F.2d 748, and 568 F.Supp. 1354), and regulated prisoner mail in Texas prisons. Defendants had filed a motion to terminate the prospective relief pursuant to the PLRA, 18 U.S.C. § 3626 which the court granted.

The most important point made by the court was that the termination of relief does not vacate the consent decree. "When a court terminates a consent decree under the PLRA, the effect is to end prospective relief. The consent decree itself is not vacated. As one circuit court has explained, `while terminating a consent decree strips it of future potency, the decree's past puissance is preserved and certain of its collateral effects may endure."'

... "By contrast, vacating a consent decree `wipes the slate clean, not only rendering the decree sterile for purposes, but also eviscerating any collateral effect and, indeed, casting a shadow on past actions taken under the decree's imprimatur.'" Thus, the consent decree continues to have the force of precedent and remains the law in the district in which it was, issued.

The court spent most of its 54-page memorandum examining individual complaints by prisoners and explaining how they either showed only a violation of the prison rules (not a constitutional violation), failed to show a system-wide violation, or failed to show harm. Even proof that the prison mail rooms interfered with the plaintiffs' attorneys' collection of evidence for the hearing was seen as insufficient to continue the broad prospective relief ordered in the consent decree. The court allowed the denial of religious texts containing Hebrew or Greek to members of security threat groups on the grounds that such materials contain texts or symbols which could be used as a code. The court also approved the appeal system for denied mail even though prisoners won less than one-percent of the appeals.

The court refused to address the plaintiffs' claims that they had suffered retaliation for exercising their right of access to courts by filing grievances against mail room personnel, stating it was outside of the scope of the consent decree. Noting the PLRA purpose of getting the courts out of the business of administering prisons, the court held that the plaintiffs had failed to show sufficient evidence of current and ongoing system-wide constitutional violations and that the correspondence rules implemented to address the original complaints had become institutionalized procedure within TDCJ-ID. Therefore, the court ordered prospective relief terminated and dismissed the case.

Plaintiffs moved for award of attorneys' fees. The court noted that the Houston firm of Vinson & Elkins had vigorously and enthusiastically represented plaintiffs. However, because plaintiffs' motion failed to comply with the PLRA's hourly limit of attorneys' fees for work performed after April 26, 1996, the court denied the motion without prejudice toward filing an amended motion. Plaintiffs' attorneys have announced that they will appeal the termination of relief and dismissal of the case. On May 1, 2003, the TDCJ amended its mail rules. The most significant change was on mail between prisoners. See: Guajardo v. Cockrell, Civil Action No. H-71-570 (U.S.D.C.-S.D.Tex.-Houston).

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Related legal case

Guajardo v. Cockrell