When inmate David Ruiz sued the director of the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC), William J. Estelle, in 1972 over dangerous and degrading living and working conditions, he set in motion a decades long process of dramatic change--if not outright transformation--in the Texas prison system.

In his class action suit – the longest running prisoners' lawsuit in U.S. history* – Ruiz claimed that the TDC's management of prisons constituted "cruel and unusual punishment", which is prohibited by the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, Ruiz cited several problems with the state's prison system:

  • Overcrowding – particularly the placement of two and even three inmates in cells designed for a single inmate
  • Inadequate security – claimed to be the result of too few guards, sometimes resulting in the handing over of supervision of whole sections of prisons to inmates (known as "building tenders") who assisted guards
  • Inadequate healthcare – an insufficient number of professional medical personnel for the number of prisoners, the use of non-professional personnel to deliver professional medical care, and limited therapy of for psychiatric patients
  • Unsafe working conditions – exposure of prisoners to unsafe conditions and lax enforcement of safety procedures
  • Severe and arbitrary disciplinary procedures

After eight years of pre-trial activity, the case of Ruiz v. Estelle finally went to trial. The trial itself was lengthy--129 days--during which the state contested every claim made by the plaintiffs. In the end the U.S. District Court in Tyler, Texas ruled in the plaintiffs' favor citing numerous instances of mistreatment, institutionalized neglect and inadequate resources and facilities. As a consequence, Federal District Judge William Wayne Justice ordered sweeping changes in the state's prison system.

This ruling reversed the "hands off doctrine" that the federal courts applied to complaints about conditions in state prison systems. The State of Texas continued to fight the ruling of the court through further appeals, which led to overturning parts of the 1980 ruling, but upholding other key parts.

Critical to settling appeals was an agreement that the state would limit the inmate population to 95 percent of prison capacity, separate hard core offenders from other prisoners, hire more guards and improve medical treatment. To ensure state compliance Judge Justice exercised strong oversight of the prison system until 1994, after which he maintained more limited oversight through 2003.

The state's response to the Ruiz ruling evolved over time as officials first tried relatively easy (and low cost) solutions, which ultimately failed. In a state famous for its hostility to both public expenditures and prisoner rights, the first response was to reduce the existing state prison population, while severely limiting the number of new prisoners transferred from county and municipal jails.

Reduction of the existing population was accomplished through early release for good behavior, either through parole (serving the remainder of one's sentence in the community under supervision) or probation (suspension of a sentence, but remaining under court supervision).

Early release programs perhaps went too far, with convicted criminals serving only small fractions of their sentences. As a result, recidivism (the rate at which convicted criminals return to criminal activity) rose dramatically, causing the public and elected officials to demand that convicts serve a greater portion of their terms. In the meantime, the war on drugs launched during the Reagan administration was adopted on the state level in Texas, resulting in increases in the length of prison sentences and the reduction of opportunities for parole.

Meanwhile, counties and municipalities, chafing under the additional financial pressure imposed by state practices, successfully sued the state for compensation of the tens of millions of dollars expended housing prisoners who would normally be transferred to state prison.

The state's rapidly growing population meant that even if crime rates stayed the same, the Texas prison system would need much greater capacity. So, by the end of the 1980s the state embarked on a massive prison construction program. At the time of the Ruiz trial the state operated just eighteen prison facilities for approximately 25,000 inmates. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the state built an additional eighty-nine units of varying sizes and types to accommodate more than 140,000 prisoners. New units have continued to come on line over the past decade to accommodate a state prison population whose numbers have leveled off at approximately 142,000.

Footnote: "PRISON SYSTEM." The Handbook of Texas Online. (full footnote)