Texas Prisoners Rights on Trial
By Bob Powell
Vol. 1, No. 4, 1979, pp. 11-13, 24
“When I die, I may not go to heaven
I don’t know if they let cowboys in
If they don’t, let me go to Texas
Texas is as close as I have been.”
From Song, “Texas When I Die” by Tanya Tucker
From cantaloupes to oilfields, Texans have always been known for things that are big. A recent prison rights case, the largest to date, is no exception to the rule. The case, Ruiz v. Estelle, now on trial in Houston, is wild and wooly in the best Texas tradition. The U.S. Justice Department alone, who has intervened on behalf of the prisoners, is expected to call 150 witnesses.
In essence, Texas is the tip of the iceberg in a ten-year period in which Southern prison systems have come under greater federal court scrutiny. Interestingly enough, in an historic sense, Ruiz is being fought exactly 10 years after the Virginia State Penitentiary strike in 1968. In that year, the strike led to an investigation by Congress and the FBI and to an offer from the Southern Regional Council to mediate the strike and provide national publicity on the Virginia system.
From this strike came the lawsuit, Landman v. Royster, settled in 1971. It has been the basis for many of the other Southern prisoner rights cases. “Without Landman,” says Salvatore Gonzalez, an ex-convict and an outspoken member of the Prisoner’s Solidarity Committee (PSC) of Texas, “there would be no Ruiz v. Estelle.In Landman the state penal codes began to expand convict’s procedural rights. The federal district court forbade the Virginia state penitentiary system from any longer imposing a bread and water diet, from using chains or tape or tear gas except in an immediate emergency, from using physical force as a punishment, and it also demanded minimum due process protections before a convict lost “good time” (that would shorten his sentence), or suffered any deprivation of his normal prison privileges (such as loss of exercise or communication with other inmates).
The Texas suit used tactics developed over 10 years ago on a larger scale. These tactics include two stages. The first is lawsuits by jailhouse lawyers coupled with strikes and the use of the media. The second tactic is the cultivation of outside activists and gaining their support for actions inside. From Landman in Virginia in 1968 to Ruiz in Texas in 1978, the cases form a pattern.
The roots of the Ruiz case go back eight years. At that time, there were almost a hundred suits filed against the prison system, charging various cruel and unusual practices offensive to the Constitution. A year ago, Federal Judge William Justice consolidated the cases into one class action suit that would affect all similarly situated prisoners in the Texas system. William Bennett Turner of the California NAACP was appointed chief counsel for the
plaintiffs and the U.S. Justice Department intervened on behalf of the prisoners.
On October 2, 1978, the first stage of the trial began with the plaintiffs, represented by Turner and the Texas ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), presenting their case. Witnesses alleged that prisoners operated on prisoners in surgery and that dissidents such as jailhouse lawyers were ordered killed by convict guards.
A few days ‘later, on October 5, Texas prisoners went on strike. The strike began in Darrington, Texas at a corrections unit there. It spread to other units in the system. The strike apparently fueled emotions between the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC), and the prisoners. Three prisoners were wounded in a melee between guards and prisoners.
At the trial, Edward Idar, assistant attorney general for the state of Texas, compared the situation to Attica in its potential for violence.
Judge Justice, considered a liberal, said “The violence and disruption by inmates may impede the legal proceedings now taking place before my court.” But at a rally in Austin, Texas, Early Bennett of Citizen’s United to Rehabilitate Errands (CURE), a prison reform group, defended the strike action. “We don’t need to be talking about another Attica,” said the CURE leader, “when what we have is a peaceful, legal strike by prisoners.”
Another group that has been heavily involved in the strike support work is the Prisoner’s Solidarity Committee (PSC) of Texas. Gonzalez of the PSC said, “The biggest problem in TDC is the convict guard system,” where convicts are made into guards over other inmates, a system that has vanished from most other prison systems.
At the head of the convict guard system is the tier boss. This is an inmate who makes work assignments and functions like an inmate Army sergeant in that he has subordinates to carry out his orders.
At first glance, it appears to be a rewarding system where inmates take responsibility for each other, but critics of it say that it turns inmate against inmate and allows the stronger inmates to physically, sexually and economically exploit the weaker ones.
“It produces a huge snitch system (network of informers),” says Gonzalez, “whose work is even used in parole hearings. Many inmates have been denied parole on the word of another inmate.”
In disciplinary hearings, Gonzalez says that inmate snitchers and correctional officers are given more weight in testimony than prisoners. Gonzalez also charges that officers who charge inmates with prison violations, often end on panels judging the same offense.
Gonzalez insists the inmate guard system is real and existing. But public information officer Ronald Taylor of the TDC denies its existence entirely.
“We don’t have such a system,” Taylor told Southern Changes, “It does not exist.” However, in the trial, a former TDC official testified that TDC passed a memo
banning the term “convict guard” and substituted “floor boy.”
Conditions in solitary confinement are another point in the litigation. Gonzalez charges that the solitary confinement is often used to contain troublesome writ writers. Another major point in the suit is that prison officials have systematically denied prisoner’s access to the courts.
Gonzalez, who has spent 12 years in TDC, tells of one alleged incident that seems to be out of the pages of the book Clockwork Orange where the hero, a violent criminal, was conditioned out of his violent behavior by prison authorities and reconditioned to become nauseous at the sound of his favorite composer, Ludwig Von Beethoven.
According to Gonzalez, guards at TDC once placed him and other Black and Chicano prisoners in cells and piped in country music at full blast.
“One guy cracked up,” Gonzalez reported. “He yelled, ‘I can’t stand it anymore.”‘ After being subjected to this rather bizarre incident, Gonzalez however says, “But I like country music now.”
The suit alleges that far more serious abuses, like beatings, near starvation of prisoners and other similar incidents also occur in Texas solitary units. As a result Texas supporters have lodged complaints with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.
It was a big thing,” said Gonzalez, “to count beans in your soup while in solitary. It was a big deal to get up to twelve beans.”
Soon after the trial began, prisoners who were witnesses began to send letters to their attorneys claiming harassment and intimidation by prison authorities. The letters allege that everything from death threats, to reassignments, to lock up in solitary have been used as punishment against prisoners who testified.
Ron Taylor of the TDC dismisses the charges.
“They are spurious charges,” said Taylor, “You might add that the defendant David Ruiz has been indicted for sexual assault by a Harris County Grand Jury. He tried to rape another inmate.”
In response to the indictment Gloria Rodriguez, Prisoner Solidarity Committee member, said “The charges are absurd and a frameup as far as we are concerned. David told us several weeks ago of the investigation. The FBI investigated it and found nothing. At that time it was a Federal charge and they dropped it. Apparently, the sheriff involved took the information and gave it to the state Grand Jury. We received affidavits from a prisoner who overheard the sheriff saying to a TDC official, ‘Now Ruiz will know how the shoe feels on the other foot.'”
One prisoner, Allen Lamar, who has filed over 100 suits with the courts, alleged in a letter to Gloria Rodriguez, that he had been threatened with death for his role in the trial. When a call was made to the Texas unit where Lamar is apparently being held, the assistant warden said, “You have to call Huntsville.”
“Don’t you know who is in your prison?” this reporter asked.
He replied again, “You have to call Huntsville. We have a bad connection.”
Interestingly enough, an anonymous source in the unit had confirmed that Lamar was in lock up the night before. No other details were available.
Supporters of the suit such as Rodriquez are optimistic of its outcome. She insists that public support is on their side. “There are a lot of working people in Texas,” Rodriquez says, “who have friends or relatives in prisons. We even got two petitions supporting us from prisoners in Virginia and Florida. It meant a lot to us.”
To Salvatore Gonzalez, the suit has Southwide implications.
“Northern prison systems are very advanced compared to Southern prisons,” says Rodriquez. “Southern prisons are still fighting to get out of slavery.”
On the TDC side, Ron Taylor expressed a wait and see attitude that was vague and ambiguous in nature.
“They put on the case much as we expected them to,” said Taylor, “It’s too early to tell how things are going.”
If other Southern states are any gauge of how things are going, then the TDC is in for some changes. In state after state in the South, among the defeats have been major victories in court battles. Even the state courts are bending a little in recognizing prisoner rights as witnessed by the Tennessee Supreme Court who ruled parts of the Tennessee system unconstitutional.
Not only is the Ruiz case a test of what is unconstitutional, but also a test of what is enforceable. Considering that even a state court in Tennessee (given the historic reluctance of state courts to intervene positively in the face of constitutional abuses) recently ruled a part of its state’s system unconstitutional, it is not a question of whether there are really abuses going on in prisons. The questions, after 10 years of prison litigation fromLandman to Ruiz, are whether the rulings will be enforced.
Bob Powell is a free-lance writer who resides in Atlanta.