Filed Date: June 1, 1972
Closed Date: June 17, 2002
Clearinghouse coding complete
This was a prisoner led class action which broadly challenged conditions and practices within the Texas state prison system. Issues covered included overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, unsafe working conditions, inadequate access to the justice system, and severe and arbitrary disciplinary procedures. The plaintiff’s 1980 trial victory was followed by over two decades of appeals and negotiations which culminated in numerous consent decrees. As one of the longest running prisoners' lawsuit in U.S. history, it secured sweeping changes to the Texas prison system.Additionally, the case also addressed these issues for prisoners in solitary confinement or other forms of administrative segregation.
In the years before the suit, Texas’ prisons were rapidly becoming overcrowded in the face of an increasing crime rate coupled with intensifying enforcement of increasingly harsh statutes. Strapped for resources, the state started to cut back in numerous areas, including recreation and healthcare. In response to staffing shortages, numerous prisoners were designated as “building tenders” (i.e. guards) with broad disciplinary authority over their fellow prisoners and were even issued pistols and carbines. This created a favored class of ‘elite’ prisoners who routinely doled out harsh and arbitrary punishment. By the time of the case’s filing in 1972, there were statewide complaints of unsafe conditions and harsh disciplinary practices.
In 1972, David Ruiz, a Texas state prisoner, filed a handwritten complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against officials of the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. Representing himself, he sought declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that his degrading and dangerous conditions of confinement amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. He alleged issues such as overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, and abusive security practices.
In the Spring of 1974, Judge Justice ordered the consolidation of this case with seven other TDC lawsuits. (Montana v. Beto, Soto v. Estelle, Hilliard v. Estelle, Winchester v. Estelle, Randall v. Estelle, Pardo v. Estelle, and Johnson v. Estelle). Many of these cases originated from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The resulting consolidated action (captioned Ruiz v. Estelle) proceeded in the Southern District. However, Eastern District Judge W. Wayne Justice was assigned (an unrelated earlier order allowed federal District Judges in Texas to sit, if assigned, in any district in the state). Judge Justice would remain on the case until its closure in 2002. Private counsel was appointed to represent the indigent. Additionally, the United States was ordered to appear in the case as amicus curiae.
Plaintiffs subsequently filed an amended complaint. They sought to certify a class for all present and prospective TDC prisoners. Additionally, there were two key allegations. First, TDC has violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. This included TDC’s failure to provide adequate security, healthcare, and safe working/living conditions. Second, TDC had deprived prisoners of due process by interfering with their access to lawyers and the courts.
In December 1974, Judge Justice granted a motion of the United States to intervene as a plaintiff and permitted the action to be maintained as a class action. On July 24, 1975, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied TDC’s petition for a writ of mandamus to block the United States’ intervention. In re Estelle, 516 F.2d 480 (5th Cir. 1975) (Circuit Judge Tuttle). On June 7, 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari. Justice Rehnquist penned a lengthy dissent which was joined by Chief Justice Burger and Justice Powell. He argued that Judge Justice exceeded his authority by ordering the United States to appear as amicus and by subsequently permitting their intervention. This was because the United States lacked a claim of its own and in effect had been dragged in as an “involuntary coplaintiff.” Estelle v. Justice, 426 U.S. 925 (1976). Subsequently, Senator Ted Kennedy drafted a statute granting such authority to the district court (42 U.S.C. § 1997(c)). What followed was the Justice Department funding and conducting an investigation unlike any that had been seen in a prison case.
During the pre-trial period, Judge Justice issued several unpublished protective orders enjoining TDC officials from conduct against plaintiffs' interests based upon their participation in the case. A June 20, 1974, consent order enjoined the TDC from interfering with the plaintiffs' consultations with their attorneys and from case-related threats, harassment, or discipline. On January 20, 1975, a supplemental order protected plaintiffs' access to prison law libraries and to legal mail. On December 30, 1975, a more comprehensive order was released following violations of the previous two protective orders. On April 7, 1977, the Fifth Circuit affirmed this order as supported by the record before the district court which detailed threats, coercion, punishment, and discrimination against the plaintiffs due to their participation in litigation. Ruiz v. Estelle, 550 F.2d 238 (5th Cir. 1977) (per curiam).
October 2, 1978 marked the start of 159 days of trial over the next eleven months. There were more than 300 witnesses, 1500 exhibits, and even a life-size model of a forty-five square foot prison cell.
On December 12, 1980, Judge Justice found conditions within TDC facilities violated the Eighth Amendment and thus granted the requested declaratory and injunctive relief. The court found the involved prisons were grossly overcrowded. Further, defendants had failed to provide adequate recreational facilities, healthcare, prisoner access to courts, hearing procedures for disciplinary actions, and fire safety/sanitation standards. The court made clear that constitutional violations existed for each of these categories individually as well as for the totality of these conditions (should an appellate court disagree with one or more of the categories). The court also ordered the parties confer to develop a consent decree proposal. Special masters would be appointed to monitor compliance once the decree was in place. The order was notable for granting the special masters sweeping authority. This included unrestricted access to TDC facilities and files, the authority to interview all staff and prisoners, hold hearings, make factual findings, and recommendations. Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F.Supp. 1265 (S.D. Tex. 1980). The defendants appealed. This ruling shifted away from the“hands off doctrine” which federal courts had previously applied to complaints on state prison conditions.
The effects of this order were broad and systemwide. For example, prison officials were ordered to cease quadruple and triple celling. As a result, TDC erected tents, expanded furloughs, liberalized their “good time” policy. Additionally, 1982 marked the start of a prison construction project and the Blue Ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice, whose purpose was to study the prison system and develop a comprehensive plan for reform. The order also marked the end of TDC appointing prisoners as “building tenders.” To replace them TDC hired more guards and developed a more extensive prisoner classification plan.
On March 3, 1981, Judge Justice took two actions. First, he signed a partial consent decree, which was filed on April 20, 1981. Focused on prisoners entering solitary confinement, it covered their diet as well as physical examinations and mental health monitoring. The decree also covered usage of chemical agents, work safety, hygiene, and administrative segregation. (A copy of the decree exists as Appendix A to a later appellate opinion, Ruiz v. Estelle, 679 F.2d 1115 (5th Cir. 1982).) Second, the court issued an injunction for issues outside the consent decree. This included overcrowding, managerial reorganization of prison units, construction/modification of prison units, security, healthcare, discipline, court access, fire safety, and compliance with state health and safety laws. (As amended on May 1, 1981, the court's injunction was published as an appendix to a later Fifth Circuit ruling, Ruiz v. Estelle, 666 F.2d 854 (5th Cir. 1982).)
The defendants asked the Fifth Circuit to stay portions of the district court’s March 1981 injunction, pending appeal. On June 26, 1981, the Fifth Circuit granted the motion. First, it stayed requirements for single-celling of prisoners, rotation of triple-celled prisoners, and release of certain prisoners for work and temporary furloughs. Second, it stayed the requirement that TDC give the court a plan for reorganizing and decentralizing management of each unit housing more than 500 prisoners. Third, the court found that requiring 30-day rotation of prisoners who worked as “building tenders” was an undue interference with the details of prison administration. Fourth, the court refused to stay the requirement that TDC review records of every prisoner who had not received credit for certain categories of good time. Finally, the defendants were entitled to present facts to the district court on whether to stay the requirement to downgrade the unit hospital to an infirmary. Ruiz v. Estelle, 650 F.2d 555 (5th Cir. 1981) (per curiam).
After additional proceedings before the district court, the defendants once again asked the Fifth Circuit to stay portions of the March 1981 injunction. On January 14, 1982, the Fifth Circuit granted in part. The Fifth Circuit stayed the requirements for providing 60 square feet of space per prisoner, providing a specified ratio of prisoners to uniformed staff, and forbidding prisoners from possessing keys even when supervised. However, the Fifth Circuit gave the defendants 60 days to provide at least 40 square feet per prisoner and provide a more lenient ratio of prisoners to uniformed staff.
On June 23, 1982, the Fifth Circuit finally reached the merits, with the stay requests disposed of. It affirmed Judge Justice’s post-trial ruling finding TDC imposed cruel and unusual punishment and denied prisoners due process of law. However, the opinion narrowed the scope of relief. The court determined the district court had inappropriately considered state law claims not raised by the parties. As such, some remedies were not required to protect federal rights and unduly intruded on matters of state concern.
The Fifth Circuit reversed, and thus narrowed, the district court’s order on the following. First, the requirements that TDC take certain steps regarding reduction of inmate population, good time, parole, furlough programs, and improvement of a state prison hospital. Additionally, while the special masters had been properly appointed, the order of reference defining their authority was too sweeping. The court opined that the special master was not a ‘roving district court.’Additionally, no presumption of correctness was to be imputed on their findings or conclusions that were not based upon hearings with proper notice.
The Fifth Circuit also upheld Judge Justice’s order on reducing inmate population, providing prisoners with at least 40 feet of space, preservation of a verbatim record for disciplinary hearings, providing regular exercise for those in administrative segregation, ensuring access to courts and counsel. Ruiz v. Estelle, 679 F.2d 1115 (5th Cir. 1982) (Circuit Judge Rubin).
Following the Fifth Circuit’s opinion, plaintiffs sought a rehearing arguing that issues surrounding TDC’s Huntsville Unit Hospital were already settled. On September 16, 1982, the Fifth Circuit amended their opinion by vacating the portion relating to the hospital. The court also added that the parties were not precluded from seeking additional relief by the agreed-upon fire safety plan or the court’s earlier ruling that double-celling inmates was not cruel and unusual punishment. The court also reaffirmed its earlier determination that the Judge Justice’s order that the TDC use good time, parole, and furlough programs was unduly intrusive. Ruiz v. Estelle, 688 F.2d 266 (5th Cir. 1982) (per curiam). Both parties sought U.S. Supreme Court review. On March 21, 1983, certiorari was denied. Ruiz v. Estelle, 460 U.S. 1042 (1983).
On April 14, 1982, the parties presented Judge Justice with modifications to the consent decree. Most notably, this prohibited the TDC from allowing prisoners to have any position of authority over other prisoners, including their appointment as “building tenders.” Actions covered included escorting prisoners, influencing cell assignments, and having access to prisoners’ medical or institutional records. Seven days later, Judge Justice tentatively approved the modification. After notice was sent only about 1 percent of the class objected, the court approved it fully. A single prisoner appealed this decision. On February 13, 1984, the Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that the court did not abuse its discretion and the class had received adequate notice. Ruiz v. McKaskle, 724 F.2d 1149 (5th Cir. 1984) (per curiam).
In May 1985, the parties presented Judge Justice with more modifications, this time to the crowding options. The TDC agreed to abide by capacity limits, housing standards, and confinement requirements. In return, plaintiffs gave up their pursuit of more stringent limits. On July 15, 1985, Judge Justice approved. However, on September 12, 1986, the TDC asked Judge Justice to modify it further. TDC sought to allow increased capacity within the prison system, but without new construction. Seven days later, the court denied the request and issued an injunction barring TDC from violating the decree. Defendants appealed. On February 23, 1987, the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Ruiz v. Lynaugh, 811 F.2d 856 (5th Cir. 1987) (per curiam).
On March 6, 1990, Judge Justice ordered the parties to start negotiating to bring about a comprehensive final judgment in the case. The aim was to help bring the litigation to a close by both clarifying and expanding the scope of relief in light of new developments. In July 1991, the parties agreed on a proposed final judgment which they submitted to the court on August 13, 1992. Seven days later, the court tentatively approved. Notice was submitted to the class and a hearing held. On December 11, 1992, the court approved the final judgment while noting the “remarkable and palpable changes” systemwide. It covered staffing, support services for inmates, discipline, administrative segregation, work health and safety, use of force, access to the courts, maintenance of facilities, programming and recreational activities, visitation, crowding, new facilities, monitoring, health services, psychiatric services, death row conditions, and enforcement procedures.
On April 26, 1996, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) was signed into law. It was passed in response to a significant and nationwide increase in prisoner litigation. Chief among its goals was to decrease the number of prisoner suits. It achieved this goal by curbing federal court discretion over prisoner suits. This included requirements that judicial relief be “narrowly drawn” and “exten[d] no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right” while also using the least intrusive means necessary[.]” 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A). Additionally, any court ordered relief could be terminated on motion of the party after two years. 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(1)(A)(i). Individuals filing suits against prisoners were also required to pay court fees in full, prove physical injury, and exhaust all administrative remedies. Additionally, you were limited to three suits (the three-strike provision). In the decade after its enactment, the PLRA accounted for a 60% decrease in prisoner filings.
On May 21, 1996, the TDC asked the Court to vacate the final judgment pursuant to the PLRA. The TDC supplemented this motion on September 6, 1996. On September 23, 1996, Judge Justice refused to vacate. The court determined it could not rule on defense motions within the time periods set by the PLRA. Further, Judge Justice declared the automatic stay provisions of the PLRA unconstitutional under due process and separation of powers concerns. On June 15, 1998, Judge Justice also denied a motion by the United States, a plaintiff-intervenor, to reconsider his decision.
In May 1996 two Texas state legislators asked Judge Justice to intervene under the PLRA, specifically 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(3)(F). On November 24, 1997, the motion was denied. It had been opposed by both the plaintiffs and the TDC. On January 28, 1998, Judge Justice denied the legislators’ request for reconsideration despite amendments to the PLRA. The legislators appealed. On November 20, 1998, the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the case. They reasoned that the PLRA granted individual legislators the right to intervene, that granting their intervention did not violate Article III of the U.S. Constitution, and that the 1992 final judgment was a prisoner release order within the meaning of the PLRA. Ruiz v. Estelle, 161 F.3d 814 (5th Cir. 1998) (Circuit Judge Garwood).
On May 6, 1998, the TDC again asked Judge Justice to terminate the final judgment. This time, they cited the PLRA’s two-year termination provision. On June 19, 1998, the court denied the request. By this time, the TDC’s September 6, 1996, supplemental motion to terminate had still not been ruled upon. As such, TDC petitioned the Fifth Circuit for a writ of mandamus to force a ruling. On December 16, 1998, the Fifth Circuit set a deadline for the ruling, 31 days after the motion’s evidentiary hearing which was scheduled for January 21, 1999. In re Scott, 163 F.3d 282 (5th Cir. 1998) (per curiam).
An evidentiary hearing was conducted from January 21 to February 12, 1999. On March 1, 1999, Judge Justice once again refused to terminate the final judgment order. The court had found numerous violations of the 1992 consent judgment and the U.S. Constitution by TDC’s actions in medical, psychiatric, segregation practices (particularly regarding mentally ill prisoners), prisoner safety, and guards’ use of excessive force. Additionally, the court held the PLRA’s two-year termination provision violated separation of power principles. Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F.Supp.2d 855 (S.D. Tex. 1999). Defendants appealed. The United States, plaintiff-intervenor, filed a cross-appeal.
March 20, 2001, The Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded. It held the PLRA’s two-year termination provision did not violate separation of power principles or due process. Further, the 1992 final judgment did not preclude the TDC’s reliance on the subsequently enacted PLRA from seeking to vacate. Further, Judge Justice’s failure to make findings mandated under the PLRA meant the case needed to be remanded. The court remanded with instructions to determine if there were any ongoing constitutional violations and which aspects of the decree remained necessary to correct those violations. Ruiz v. U.S., 243 F.3d 941 (5th Cir. 2001) (Circuit Judge Stewart).
On June 18, 2001 on remand, Judge Justice again found violations of the Eighth Amendment in three major areas: conditions of confinement in administrative segregation, the failure to provide reasonable safety to inmates against assault and abuse, and the excessive use of force by correctional officers. In those areas, the preexisting relief would continue alongside new relief to correct the continuing violations. However, relief was terminated in regards to staffing, support services, discipline, administrative segregation, access to courts, visitations, crowding, monitoring by inmates' counsel, internal monitoring, health services, and death row conditions. Also, the parties were encouraged to negotiate and respond to the continuing constitutional violations in the hopes of a final termination of the court’s jurisdiction over the Texas prison system. Ruiz v. Johnson 154 F.Supp.2d 975 (S.D. Tex. 2001).
On June 7, 2002, the parties took part in a final status conference. The parties had reached a stipulation on attorneys’ fees and all contested issues, except for one regarding whether the court’s findings from March 1, 1999 should be vacated. The parties expressed a desire to “let federal jurisdiction in Ruiz end and move on in the future with [TDC] following some of its own initiatives[.]”
On June 17, 2002, the court ordered the TDC to pay plaintiffs $1,379,025.25 in attorneys’ fees. Also, a final judgment was issued dismissing the case with prejudice.
By surviving a series of procedural hoops, Ruiz remained to have a massive effect on Texas’ prisons. It reduced crowding, ended the longtime use of “building tenders,” improved access to healthcare, instituted more disciplinary procedural safeguards, and counteracted the general culture of violence and intimidation that had defined the prison system. However, Professor Margo Schlanger, in her 2006 article for the New York University Law Review, argued that the “kitchen-sink” litigation seen in Ruiz acted as an “inadvertent rate buster” by setting the bar very high for obtaining broad orders in prison litigation. Additionally, a 2013 publication from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition detailed continuing reports of inhumane conditions within Texas prisons after the Ruiz court ended oversight in 2002.
Hundreds of boxes of documents were generated during the 30-year history of the Ruiz litigation. For those interested in reviewing more Ruiz litigation documents, including monitor reports, a vast collection of case documents is maintained by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Similarly, a collection of records related to the work of the Office of the Special Master is located in a repository maintained by the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.
Kristen Sagar (5/17/2007)
Eric Gripp (4/12/2023)
For PACER's information on parties and their attorneys, see: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/16354486/parties/ruiz-v-estellebr-bfont-colorff0000no-further-motions-from/
Arenas, Christina (California)
Baldwin, Holly MacLeish (California)
Aguilar, Javier (Texas)
Anastasiadis, Demetri (Texas)
Alexander, Elizabeth R. (District of Columbia)
Benavides, Fortunato Pedro (Texas)
Brown, John Robert (Louisiana)
Clark, Charles (Mississippi)
Davis, Leonard E. (Texas)
DeMoss, Harold R. Jr. (Texas)
Garwood, William Lockhart (Texas)
Goldberg, Arthur Joseph (District of Columbia)
Hill, Robert Madden (Texas)
Jolly, E. Grady (Mississippi)
Justice, William Wayne (Texas)
Reavley, Thomas Morrow (Texas)
Rubin, Alvin Benjamin (Louisiana)
Stewart, Carl E. (Louisiana)
Tate, Albert Jr. (Louisiana)
Thornberry, William Homer (Texas)
Tuttle, Elbert Parr (Georgia)
Williams, Jerre Stockton (Texas)
Last updated Aug. 2, 2023, 3:01 a.m.
State / Territory: Texas
Filing Date: June 1, 1972
Closing Date: June 17, 2002
Case Ongoing: No reason to think so
Prisoners in the custody of the Texas Department of Corrections
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: Yes
Class Action Sought: Yes
Class Action Outcome: Granted
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Plaintiff
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Form of Settlement:
Amount Defendant Pays: $1,379,025.25
Order Duration: 1981 - 2002
Content of Injunction:
Affected Sex or Gender:
Type of Facility: