Page 16


What to expect from another large group of witnesses, the 200 or so prisoners who are slated to testify, is no secret either. That’s because interviews conducted with more than 500 potential inmate witnesses are also on the record. The civil rights division called in the FBI to help with the screening, and the agents interviewed each one at some length, asking a standard set of questions covering the inmate’s knowledge of incidents and conditions bearing upon allegations made in the suit, and often followed up with investigations of the inmate’s charges. The FBI summaries of these interviews typically recite details of reported mental and physical abuses or dangers; much of what’s alleged seems unbelievable on first reading, but gains credibility as the same sorts of events and situations are mentioned again and again through thousands of pages by inmates all over the TDC system and by former Texas prisoners scattered from Florida to Alaska. A public mission TDC has always conceived of its first responsibility as being to the public, not the prisonersnot a bad philosophy for a public agency if the public’s long-term interests, and not its often-shortsighted responses to “the crime problem,” are the touchstone of sound policy. Unfortunately, TDC prefers to be led rather than to lead; as director Jim Estelle told Corrections Magazine earlier this year, “All that the citizens of Texas demand of their prison system is that it do two things: hold offenders securely, and ‘make sure that they work to defray the cost to the taxpayers of their own imprisonment.” These demands, as Estelle sees it, define TDC’s mission, and no one disputes that the department satisfies them. With only three escapes last year, Texas prisons are undoubtedly better at keeping prisoners inside than any in the country. And with a system in which everyone works and no one gets paid, they’re also the most economical; indeed, TDC actually used to turn a profit. That this obsession with control and production will, in the long run, serve only to further alienate inmates from society is a matter of “public interest” not seriously considered by TDC. At some point, a public agency with total control over the lives of thousands of men and women must acknowledge responsibilities to them too. These responsibilities are what is at issue in the Ruiz case. The prisoners, convicted felons though they are, did not give up their right to live in a safe and humane environment when they lost their freedom. And that, the plaintiffs maintain. TDC does not provide. Wall-to-wall bodies The crowded living conditions inside are a prime example of the severity and 4 SEPTEMBER 22, 1978 complexity of the problems at TDC that have prompted inmatt grievances. The population of the Texas prison system has been growing at a pace so extraordinary it has outstripped even the generous estimates made by TDC planners. It’s up from 12,000 in 1968 to 17,000 in 1974 to more than 24,000 this summera doubling in just ten years. Only four years ago, the department was projecting a 1977 population of 19,200, a figure that turned out to be off by about 4,000. And all these people are housed in prisons designed to accommodate 19,000. This makes TDC by far the nation’s largest state system, and, according to the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice \(a Justice Department crowded. What this means in human terms is appalling. Though conditions vary materially from one institution to the next, the pattern is to house two men in one-man cells or three men in two-man cells \(the and to fill the dormitories with wall-towall cots. In at least one dormitory, some men actually have to sleep on mattresses placed on a ledge a few feet above the room’s toilets. Throughout the system, the prisoners average less than 25 square feet of living space apiece, and only 21 to 22 square feet in the dormsfigures that take on meaning if one recalls that the, beds, which average six by three feet, take up 18 square feet of an individual’s space. The latest standards adopted by the American Correctional Association, a professional group that boasts TDC’s Estelle on its executive board, call for more than double the space Texas prisons provide. Federal courts in other states have found prisons with considerably more space than Texas’ to be unconstitutionally overcrowded, so the plaintiffs should have little difficulty demonstrating that the same is true here. Nor will they have any trouble getting TDC officials to admit it; in their public appearances the last few yearsespecially before legislative committeesthey seem to have talked of little else. But what is to be done about it? The TDC solution is the obvious one: build more prisons. The department has requested more than $55 million for the next biennium to finish the Beto Unit, a 2,000-bed prison now under construction, and to acquire land and build a second new unit of similar size. \(TDC tried earlier this year to buy land in the Rio Grande Valley for such a prison, but the attorney general’s office ruled the purTDC has also requested $26 million to build cell-block additions that would add 1,800 beds at six existing units and $1 million to build temporary buildings at six units to house another 1,440 men. The obvious solution, however, is also a simplistic one. It fails to address the underlying question of why our prisons are overcrowded. That Texas locks up a larger proportion of its people than 42 other states ought to give us pause. What are we doing wrong? For one thing, our Department of Corrections refuses to have anything to do with community-based correctional facilities, instead housing virtually all its prisoners in what are, for all practical purposes, maximum security institutions. But TDC is not creating this problem by itself. Our judges make less use of probation than do those in most other states, mainly because the probation services are grossly inadequate in most counties and virtually nonexistent in some. So more people go to prison in the first place. Then, our sentences are among the nation’s longest, our parole board grants relatively fewer paroles than boards elsewhere, and Our governor vetoes many paroles that the board does approve. So those who go to prison stay longer. Any “solution” to the overcrowding that ignores these facts is no solution at all. Living in fear Paradoxically, the existence of most of the other unacceptable living conditions alleged by the plaintiffs in the Ruiz case will be harder to prove but easier to correct once the court is convinced some remedy is called for. The one about which many seem most concerned is their physical security. No one knocks TDC’s outside security; the department does a better job of keeping the inmates inside and the public outside than just about any system in existence. But, the prisoners claim, they aren’t safe inside. Dozens of them told the FBI interview= ers of beatings by guards and other inmates. And it’s not just random violencethey allege that TDC policies and practices contribute directly to the “D—advised that the building tenders would harass the `writ writers’ by placing contraband in the writ writers’ cells. The building tenders would then conduct a search or have TDC officials conduct a search, and this contraband would be discovered, and thereafter the individuals would be subjected to some disciplinary action.” The FBI