Fixing California's Prisons Could Be Very Long and Costly Battle For Taxpayers

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The Star reported Wednesday that Gov. Jerry Brown is asking a federal three judge panel to drop its order for further reduction of the prison inmate population.

Brown is quoted as saying that the prison overcrowding problem has been fixed.

"The prison emergency is over in California is over," Brown is quoted in the front-page article. "The trouble situation in California prisons has been remedied.  It is now time to return control of the prison system to California."

Inmate-advocate groups decried Brown's actions, saying overcrowding remains a severe problem and that remedies exist to fix that situation without endangering public safety, the article stated.

Good luck, governor.

There are two inmate lawsuits that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court that should concern  California taxpayers:  the 1972 case of Ruiz vs. Estelle and the  2007 case of Jones vs. Bock.

Ruiz vs. Estelle underscores the staying power of the federal courts, and Jones vs. Bock clears the way for inmates to file civil rights complaints and rejecting the existing law that stated that inmates had to exhaust prison grievance procedures before suing the prison about their treatment.

I recall while working in El Paso and covering the courts and the criminal justice system after the federal courts had taken control over the state's prison system, which resulted in a 10 year takeover.

The litigation started when a prison inmate,  David Ruiz, sued the director of the Texas Department of Corrections, William J. Estelle in 1972.

The Ruiz vs. Estelle case was the longest running prison lawsuit in U.S. history, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

Citing violation violations of the 8th Amendment, inmate David Ruiz said Texas' prison constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" including overcrowding, inadequate security, inadequate health care (sound familiar), unsafe working conditions and severe and arbitrary disciplinary procedures.

"If you cage an animal and kick him every day, one day that animal is going to attack," Ruiz told an AP reporter in a 1992 interview. "I never asked for a Holiday Inn. I asked to be treated as a human being."

After eight years of legal haggling, the case went to trial. The trial lasted 129 days, resulting in a U.S. District Court in Tyler, Texas ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, citing mistreatment, institutionalized neglect and inadequate resources.

In his ruling and after listening to 80 witnesses,  federal Judge William Wayne Justice ruled:  "The evidence before the court revealed a prison in which rapes, beatings and servitude are the currency of power. To preserve their physical safety, some vulnerable inmates simply subject to being bought and sold among groups of prison predators...To expect such a world to rehabilitate wrong-doers is absurd. To allow such a world to exist is unconstitutional."

 Judge Justice ordered sweeping and dramatic changes in the state's prison system.

Texas officials filed appeals that lead to reversing parts of Justice's 1980 ruling.

An agreement was reached that there would be a 95 percent prison capacity, the separation of hardcore offenders from other inmates, the hiring of more prison guards and improving of the medical treatment of prisoners.

Judge Justice had an iron hand on the oversight of the prison system until 1994, and maintained limited control until 2003.

To comply with the 95 percent cap, prisoners were given early releases for good behavior and others, usually nonviolent criminals, served only a fraction of their prison sentences.

I recall an interview with then El Paso Sheriff Leo Samaniego, a no-nonsense and tough lawman, about the inmates convicted in El Paso serving a few years of lengthy prison sentences.

"They just go up there to take a shower and they put them back on the bus and send them back," Samaniego  quipped in frustration with his Mex-Tex drawl. "Why even bother?"

One white-collar criminal given a 10-year prison returned to the county after service less than three years.

There were hundreds of other examples of early prisoner releases to the community. Some were violent criminals.

The state residents were outraged and demanded changes.  State prison officials processed newly arrived prisoners through the front doors and released others through the back door to keep from violating Judge Justice's 95 prison capacity ruling.

The recidivism rate rose dramatically.

The newspaper,  El Paso Herald-Post, sent myself, reporter Jim Bole and a female photographer named Nan (can't recall her last name) to report on the broken Lone Star State's prisons.

I wrote about Judge Justice's ruling dismantled the prison's "building tenders" system.  Building tenders were handpicked goons who were given carte blanche by the prison guards to beat, rape, murder and torture other inmates believed to be troublemakers or who were complaining.

I remember this is what the prison guards called this building-tender brutality on inmates: "A little thump therapy to set his heart right."


After the building tender system was dissolved, there was a power vacuum in the prison system.

Inmates began forming groups, mostly along racial lines.  First the groups were organized for protection and cultural pride. Soon, it was to control the drugs, prostitution, extortion and power inside the prison walls.

Prison gangs -- Texas Syndicate, Mexican Mafia,  Aryan Brotherhood to name a few -- were formed and it resulted in an explosion of violence in 1980s.

By the end of the 1980s, Texas residents, many who had disdain for Judge Justice, decided to pay for a billion dollar prison construction to relieve the overcrowding   that expanded the prison units from 18 at the time of the Ruiz trial to more than 90 units by the 1990s.

The Jones vs. Bock case means that jailhouse lawyers can now circumvent the prison's grievance system

Inmates can now go directly to the federal courts with their civil rights complaints, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007.

David Ruiz, who filed the historic lawsuit, was the son of migrant farm workers and the youngest of 13 children.

He was a self-educated jailhouse lawyer who took on human rights abuses in prison.

Ruiz wrote his 1972 complain that was handwritten at least partially on toilet paper, according to published reports.

Ruiz died of natural causes in prison on Nov. 11, 2005. He was serving a life-sentence for aggravated robbery and had spent all but four years of his adult life in prison.

At his funeral was Judge Justice who was 86 years old, sat quietly among family, friends and ex-prisoners. The funeral service was held at a church in East Austin, according to published reports.

 

For more information on Ruiz vs. Estelle: http://www.laits.utexas.edu/txp_media/html/just/features/0505_01/ruiz.html

 

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The Court Reporter
Raul Hernandez has spent years writing stories about the drama that unfolds in the courtroom. Here he answers common questions, share some insights on the judicial system and passes along some of the little things that make the Ventura County courts an interesting place to be. You can contact him at rhernandez@vcstar.com.