BEYOND BARS: Reflections on 40 Years of NLG-JHL Activism

By Iron Thunderhorse
Teague, TX

I began working with NLG as a jailhouse lawyer membership coordinator in the early 1970s. That was the year when the monster of all prisoner lawsuits began, and Ruiz v. Estelle was launched under the Institutionalized Persons Act. Multiple complaints were consolidated and the United States intervened as a party. I’ve heard lots of rumors about how this litigation began but the truth is that the late William Wayne Justice who presided over the case was responsible (See: “The Origins of Ruiz v. Estelle,” Stanford University Law Journal, Lecture of March 21, 1996).

Ruiz was the most comprehensive litigation [on prison conditions] ever litigated in the history of federal jurisprudence. It went to trial on October 2, 1978, and lasted 159 days where 349 witnesses gave testimony and 1,565 exhibits were entered into evidence.

As the appeals went through the courts I wrote a column for Guild Notes predicting the outcome of the case. I stated that the TDC (Texas Department of Corrections) Director would be asked to step down and be replaced, wardens and administrators would be fired and some prosecuted for egregious crimes; a Special Master would be appointed to oversee compliance with the Court’s orders.

Although everything I predicted did in fact occur, my cell was ransacked, my typewriter confiscated, and I became targeted as a “troublemaker.”
Key Plaintiff-Witnesses such as David Ruiz, Lawrence Pope, Lorenzo Davis and Martha Quinlin opted to go to the feds for protection. I elected to stay and continue the struggle on the front lines. I organized CSPR (Committee to Safeguard Prisoners’ Rights) with an outside Watchtower Network of lawyers, law students, professors, activists and loved ones who had our backs. Inside the infamous Texas prison system I organized groups of jailhouse lawyers—each jailhouse lawyer was assisted by a team of typists, researchers and our outside network kept up periodic correspondence, visitation and fundraisers for postage, supplies, etc. and to keep the momentum moving forward.

The Ruiz Court approved two consent decrees (April 1981 and July 1992), and the final compliance hearing was convened on March 1, 1999 and the final appeal was ended in 2001. Once it was over, TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) assembled a new administration and began systematically taking steps backward to reverse all the progress we made. So the changes are mainly cosmetic now and I have five active federal cases pending to address violations and contract agreements broken.

The sad part is this: Most of the new inmates coming through the Texas prisons don’t know about this case, all we suffered to make changes and provide better accommodations in prison. So, this column is dedicated to all those who gave everything for prison reform and died in prison as a result.

The Huntsville Item obituary printed after David Ruiz died in TDCJ quoted him as saying, “All I ever wanted was to be treated like a human being.” I am a LIFER, I have spent 40 years in prison and I will probably die here behind these bars, razor wire and the demarcation line for humanity. Please never forget, “The degree of society can be measured by entering its prisons.” Our motto once was, “We are in here for you, and you are out there for us. Together we must remain strong and struggle for true justice.” ■