Commentary: Texas offers a lesson in how not to run a prison system

Bob Ray Sanders is a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Bob Ray Sanders is a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. MCT

California should have learned a lesson from Texas in how not to operate prisons.

And it's still not too late for the Golden State to learn a few things from the Lone Star State's arduous experience in fighting against doing the right thing for inmates in its custody.

A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last Monday that found California's severely overcrowded prison system in violation of the U.S. Constitution is reminiscent of the long legal fight Texas officials waged beginning in 1972.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court ordered California to reduce its penitentiary population by more than 30,000. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the state's prisons have "fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements," and that conditions were so bad they had caused "needless suffering and death."

More than 140,000 inmates are being housed in facilities designed for 80,000, causing up to 200 prisoners to be crammed into large open rooms and as many as 54 prisoners using one toilet. The suicide rate is 80 percent higher than the national average.

One Texas inmate, with a handwritten petition to a U.S. district court in 1972, led to sweeping changes in this state's prison system, although it took a decades-long battle before the state fully complied.

Inmate David Resendez Ruiz, in his suit against Texas Department of Corrections Director William J. Estelle, claimed that the system violated the Eighth Amendment (prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment) because of severe overcrowding, inadequate security, insufficient healthcare, unsafe working conditions, and severe and arbitrary disciplinary procedures.

Ruiz v. Estelle became a class-action case in 1974 when it was joined with seven other inmate lawsuits. Judge William Wayne Justice ruled in 1980 that practices in Texas prisons were unconstitutional.

Of course, the state appealed, an effort that prolonged the inevitable. Initially, Texas tried to comply by forcing felons to remain in county jails for longer periods before transferring them to the state penitentiary, and by permitting early releases of some nonviolent prisoners.

Some Californians are suggesting similar moves, but they are likely to find that -- as it was in Texas -- such maneuvers will frustrate local authorities who will complain of overcrowding in county facilities and the added costs of housing inmates who legitimately belong in state prisons.

In the 1980s, Texas was forced to embark on a major prison construction program. When Ruiz v. Estelle was filed, the state had 18 prisons. Today, 112 prisons and state jails (15 of them private) and five "parole confinement facilities" house about 160,000 inmates.

Some people in this country, including a few on the Supreme Court, don't really care how prisoners are treated or what kind of conditions they live in. The lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality is still very much with us, but that kind of archaic thinking got us into this mess in the first place.

For years, state legislatures across the country have been busy finding ways to put more people in prison and keep them there longer. They came up with "strike-out" provisions that added much longer sentences to people who committed a second and third crime.

In many cases, the crimes were nonviolent offenses that otherwise would carry short sentences. But the laws were rigid and aggressively carried out, so well that they quickly filled up our prisons.

When there's a budget crisis, among the first things to cut are the programs designed to help people stay out of prison, such as education. And, as in the case of California, there is no money to expand facilities to humanely accommodate everyone in the system.

Justice Samuel Alito, in his dissent of the court's ruling, said, "The majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California."

No, Justice Alito, it is the people of California who have been gambling -- pretending they could get away with this injustice forever.

It's too bad they had to learn the hard way that consistent bad decisions would not pay off.

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