The University of Texas at Austin
  • Transforming the Texas prison system

    By Mary Crouter
    Mary Crouter
    Published: Nov. 22, 2010

    Mary Crouter, assistant director of the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law at the School of Law, also directs the law school’s Judicial Internship Program and teaches judicial internship courses. This post is part of a Know series on the Texas prison system.

    In the early 1970s, Judge William Wayne Justice (UT Law, ’42), a U.S. District Judge sitting in Tyler began receiving scraps of paper from prisoners with handwritten complaints about their treatment in Texas prisons.

    Photo of Mary Crouter
    Mary Crouter Photo: Dave Mayfield

    After noticing common themes in the prisoners’ stories, he consolidated several complaints, then certified the matter as a class action. Thus was born Ruiz v. Estelle, the legendary lawsuit that transformed the Texas prison system in the 1980s, and the subject of considerable attention in a new book by Robert Perkinson, “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire.”

    The Ruiz trial began in October 1978 and lasted 159 days, with 349 witnesses testifying. Trial evidence revealed brutally harsh prison conditions. Discipline was maintained by “building tenders” — favored prisoners informally vested with authority over other prisoners, who exercised their power through fear and violence.

    More than a year after the trial’s conclusion, Justice issued a detailed ruling vindicating the prisoners’ claims. He found the prison system overcrowded and understaffed and that prisoners received inadequate health care and were subject to an arbitrary discipline system. A series of remedial orders followed.

    The Texas Department of Corrections resisted the ordered reforms, while state officials publicly disparaged the judge and fought to wrest control of the prison system from him. Never losing sight of his obligation to uphold the constitution, Justice appointed a special master to monitor the state’s implementation of reforms.

    Despite the opposition the Ruiz ruling unleashed, some state leaders quietly supported Justice’s oversight of the Texas prison system. The iconic Bob Bullock, then the Texas comptroller of public accounts, once sent the judge a letter commending him for “straighten[ing] out the Texas Board of Corrections,” and asserting “it is something that we state officials should have done ourselves a long time ago. I think you are the best damn judge in Texas and if I can ever help you in any way just let me know.”

    Justice maintained oversight of the prisons until 2002. The lengthy litigation resulted in a complete overhaul of the Texas prison system.

    Texas Tough book cover design
    “Texas Tough” was written by Robert Perkinson.

    Justice died in October 2009 at the age of 89, but his legacy lives on at The University of Texas at Austin.

    In 2004, the School of Law joined with Justice’s former law clerks and many admirers to create the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law in his honor. A resource for students, faculty, alumni and the community, the Justice Center promotes equal justice for all through legal education, scholarship and public service.

    The Justice Center, together with the Tarlton Law Library, is also actively engaged in preserving and making available the historical record relating to Justice and his landmark cases, of which Ruiz is just one.

    The new William Wayne Justice Papers collection includes the Judge’s judicial papers, audiotapes of his biographer’s many hours of interviews and a Web site with selected digitized material, such as the Bullock letter (PDF).

    In writing “Texas Tough,” Perkinson drew from collections related to Ruiz v. Estelle at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, as well as interviews with Judge Justice and other Ruiz notables. The William Wayne Justice Papers should help researchers shed additional light on Ruiz and Judge Justice’s role in transforming Texas prisons.

    Visit the main page of this prison system series to read two related articles.

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