O.L. McCotter to White, July 8, 1985

The prison system, always a thorny public issue, took center stage again in the 1980s when federal district judge William Wayne Justice issued a dramatic ruling in the case of Ruiz v. Estelle. Justice ruled that conditions in Texas prisons were so dismal as to violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution (the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment). Justice ordered the state to reduce overcrowding, improve rehabilitation and recreation programs, and otherwise improve treatment of prisoners. To faciliate this reform, Judge Justice placed the Texas prison system under court supervision.

The Texas prison system had remained basically unchanged since a series of reforms in the late 1920s. But by the 1970s, conditions that were always austere had become intolerable. The inmate population had grown at an accelerated pace as the population of the state grew and as public attitudes towards crime hardened. By the time of the Ruiz lawsuit, inmates were packed into cells and dormitories, with some even being housed in tents. Physical and sexual brutality between inmates and beatings at the hands of guards were commonplace. Medical and psychiatric care were negligible.

White and other Texas leaders were reluctant to make the expensive remedies specified in the Ruiz ruling, including the need to build new prisons. Instead, more inmates were freed on parole in order to free up space for newly convicted inmates. Critics called this a revolving-door policy, and Mark White and Bill Clements both faced harsh criticism when violent offenders committed rapes and murders after getting early release during their administrations.

The Texas prison system remained under court supervision 20 years after the Ruiz ruling. In the 1990s Texas spent billions of dollars building new prisons, but serious problems remained.

The letter below from the director of the prison system shows an example of the reporting required by the Ruiz ruling.

"Modern Texas"

O.L. McCotter to White

"Modern Texas"

O.L. McCotter to White, July 8, 1985, Records of Mark White, Texas Office of the Governor, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

Page last modified: March 30, 2011