A Public Service Message from the American Income Life Insurance Co.Waco, TexasBernard Rapoport, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer Tearing down walls: a look at prison reform BY RALPH L. LYNN Violence, murder, and financial corruption in the Texas prison system did not begin with the advent of George Beto as director of the Texas Department of Corrections in 1961 but the program he introduced not only allowed but fostered their continuation until 1987. He tried to introduce and pretty well succeeded in establishing an entirely authoritarian system that became virtually unaccountable to the general public. Not surprisingly, this system condoned the denial of _ basic human and constitutional rights of prisoners. It condoned the corrupt wasting of tremendous tax monies, and it condoned institutionalized violence against inmates both by salaried prison guards and by trusted prisoners called “building tenders” who were authorized to carry blackjacks and other such weapons with which to keep order. Many of the building tenders were among the most vicious and violent of the prisoners. Inevitably, they used their power to exploit the other prisoners financially, sexually, and in many other ways unimaginable by the outside world. In a fascinating, frightening book, Steve J. Martin, a lawyer who was once a Texas prison guard, and Sheldon Ekland-Olson, a University of Texas sociologist, details this story in Texas Prisons: The Walls Came Tumbling Down reading for all who take citizenship seriously. A small handful of people of intelligence, conscience, and courage found it all but impossible to break through the barriers established by Beto and his successors. Two of the handful who sparked the reform movement were Hispanic prisoners Fred Cruz and David Ruiz. Bravely and against all odds, beginning about 1967, they filed one handwritten writ after another without success until Judge William Wayne Justice found one on his schedule in 1972. SKULLDUGGERY UNCOVERED Eventually, Judge Justice mobilized the U.S. Department of Justice to force the prison system to comply with the Constitution. Almost from the beginning, the two Hispanics and other prisoners were assisted by Frances Jalet, a lawyer who persevered through the years in her efforts to help the helpless. Harry M. Whittington, an Austin lawyer and a conservative Republican, joined the board in 1979. Before Whittington came on the board, its meetings rarely lasted much more than an hour and the voting was usually unanimous in favor of anything the successive directors asked. Whittington suspected that a great deal of skullduggery was going on of which the board was ignorant. He began to vote against some of the suggestions of the director; he began to ask questions and he discovered that his suspicions were all too well founded. In 1981 another conservative Republican, Robert Gunn, a Wichita Falls geologist, joined the board and became an ally of Whittington. Gunn said he would be “dammed” if he would be a member of a board that had no sense of control. It was chiefly this handful of people who eventually broke through the stone wall of resistance to reform. CLEMENTS DESERVES MENTION Gov. Clements, but not Mark White, deserves mention with this group; he appointed Whittington and Gunn to the board. And, in 1987 when the worst allegations of the writ writers had long been on the record, he admitted the defeat of both the prison establishment and the bulk of the Texas government establishment and ordered compliance. Perhaps three events best illustrate the bizarre nature of the story. In 1983, after all these horrors were on the court record and after director Estelle had announced his intention to resign and shortly before the board fired him, Estelle “entered into a $2.5 million construction management agreement with an architect without board knowledge or approval.” In 1987 when . Clements ordered compliance, all of he reformers were vastly amused when Clements’s agent installed to implement compliance insisted that he must have time to train salaried guards to replace the building tenders the existence of whom the officials were still denying. And then the chaplain of the system ruefully observed that he could see little reason why the remaining officials should now be believed since all had lied for all the years of the investigation. Ralph L. Lynn is Professor Emeritus of History, Baylor University, and a member of the Board of Contributors, The Waco Herald Tribune, in which this essay first appeared. Reprinted with permission. American Income Life Insurance Company EXECUTIVE OFFICES: P.O. BOX 208, WACO, TEXAS 78703, 817-772-3050 BERNARD RAPOPORT . Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11
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