Cracks in the Color Line
In 1970, Dr. George Beto was nearly at the end of his tenure as director of the Texas prison system. At that time, he oversaw a prison system with roughly 15,000 prisoners, housed in roughly a dozen prison units scattered throughout East Texas. The system’s operating budget was approximately $18 million. Under Beto’s administration, litigation activity by inmates was sporadic and fundamentally a nuisance. For the most part, inmate life on any of the prison units was the same as it had been in the 1960s and even the 1950s. When the work bell chimed, the hoe squads hit the hallways, were counted, ran to the waiting trailers, and went to work in the fields “flat weeding” or picking cotton.
Only one month after Beto’s retirement in 1972, roughly two years before the December 1974 final report by the Joint Committee on Prison Reform, the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) faced a prisoner lawsuit that would have a massive impact on the system’s operation. On October 17, 1972, black TDC inmate Allen L. Lamar filed a Section 1983 lawsuit (federal Civil Action for Deprivation of Civil Rights) in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, alleging that system-wide practices of racial segregation and discrimination deprived inmates of their civil rights.1
As the Joint Committee’s investigation entered its early stages, pretrial events in the Lamar case were gaining momentum and the case was expanding. Only weeks after Lamar filed suit with the court, on November 6, eight Spanish-speaking inmates (including David Ruiz, the plaintiff of Ruiz v. Estelle) moved to intervene as additional plaintiffs.2 Two more black inmates