The Significance of Ruiz . . . For Clements and White to claim any kind of victory from the Fifth Circuit’s ruling is like the student who brags to his parents that, though he failed the examination, he did not get a zero. By Paul Coggins Dallas NASTY, BRUTISH, seriously overcrowded, dangerously understaffed, the scene of count less assaults, rapes, and tortures that is the picture of Texas prisons which emerges from the opinions of the federal district court’ and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Ruiz.v. Estelle. 2 Unfortunately, to the public the Texas prison lawsuit has been reduced to one overriding issue, Judge Justice’s requirement that only one prisoner be housed in a cell, an order which was reversed by the appellate court. The preoccupation with the single-cell issue is unfortunate for two reasons. First, it allows Governor Clements and Attorney General White to thump their chests and claim victory before the Fifth Circuit, however pyrrhic that victory may prove. More importantly, it underplays the significance of Ruiz, which was concerned with the totality of conditions in Texas prisons. Based on the totality of prison conditions, the Fifth Circuit affirmed Judge Justice’s general finding that certain aspects of Texas prisons are cruel and unusual and, therefore, violative of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. Specifically, the appellate court accepted Judge Justice’s findings that assaults and molestations are continued threats at Texas prisons; the ratio of guards to inmates in the TDC is among the worst in the nation; Texas institutions are gravely overcrowded; the TDC lacks any meaningful program for the classification of inmates; and the TDC dumps nearly all of its 33,000 prisoners in maximumsecurity prisons. This last finding, that almost all Texas prisoners are incarcerated in maximum security institutions, raises the chief irony of the case. In vacating the district court’s single-cell order, the Fifth Circuit gave as one of its reasons the cost to the state of such an order. However, a little cost-benefit analysis is a dangerous thing, because such an analysis casts doubt on the wisdom of a prison system that relies almost exclusively on maximum-security prisons, the most expensive institutions to construct and operate. In light of the description of Texas prisons in the courts’ opinions, for Clements and White to claim any kind of victory from the Fifth Circuit’s ruling is like the student who brags to his parents that, though he failed the examination, he did not get a zero. In the aftermath of the appellate court’s opinion, both sides must ask: was the protracted court fight worth the gains? Prison reformers must also ask a broader question: what is the future of correctional litigation? Ruiz demonstrates the problems with using courts to effect widespread reforms of an entire system. To begin with, federal courts, faced with an Eighth Amendment challenge to a prison system, judge the system by a minimal standard. If the system meets a tolerable standard of decency, the court does not proceed to ask whether Texas should be content with the minimum. Also, long court battles are costly. The longest prison trial in United States history, Ruiz lasted through 159 days spread over one year, 349 witnesses, and 1,565 exhibits. While the case was pending, the district court issued five protective orders to reduce the harassment by the TDC of inmate-witnesses. The testimony culminated in a 118-page opinion by Judge Justice and a 70-page opinion by the Fifth Circuit. Moreover, it is not clear that the suit is over. Time will tell whether the TDC will comply with the courts’ orders and whether compliance will lift Texas prisons to the constitutional minimum. Even the single-cell issue is, to some extent, unsettled since the Fifth Circuit ruled, not that single cells are never constitutionally-required, but that, in the present circumstances, single cells were not mandated by the Constitution. Frightened by the prospect of countless rematches, the Fifth Circuit ended its decision with a prayer that implementation of the court decree not degenerate into “ceaseless guerilla war, with endless hearings, opinions, and appeals, and incalculable costs.”‘ GIVEN THE PROBLEMS with court intervention in a systemic problem limitations on the standard of reference and remedial powers, escalating costs, and the dangers of spawning fresh suits there has been much second-guessing of Judge Justice’s wide-ranging opinion, as well as outright attacks on the district judge for usurping executive and legislative powers. Criticism of Judge Justice neglects the truth that he acted in the face of a crisis which had been created by the irresponsibility of the executive and legislature. In abstract terms the crisis can be described by saying that Texas prisons had become unmanageable. Through a combination of understaffing and overcrowding, the institutions were too large to be overseen by the staff, with the result that at times a single guard was responsible for several wings of three-man cells or several teeming dormitories. The real crisis, however, can be described only in human terms through anecdotes that hint at the violence within the TDC. A few incidents, culled from Judge Justice’s opinion, convey more accurately the sense of emergency than a book of statistics on inmate-guard ratios and the square footage of living space. A 4 SEPTEMBER 17, 1982
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