Texas prisons will receive guarded praise from an unlikely witness this week as defense testimony in the most ambitious, and possibly longest, federal suit against a state penal system draws to a close.
"As a northern liberal Jew, the idea of forcing someone to work is repulsive to me," said Bruce Jackson, director of the Center for the Study of American Culture at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Despite his distaste for the forced-work regimen and strict discipline of the Texas Department of Corrections, however, Jackson said that if his son were ever imprisoned, "I should much rather he be in Texas prisons than in New York's."
Jackson, who has written extensively on prison inmate culture in Texas and other states, will be the final state witness in the massive Ruiz vs. Estelle civil rights lawsuit against the TDC.
Testimony in the suit, which alleges overcrowding of prisons, inadequate medical care, prison guard brutality toward inmates and the illegal use of inmates to discipline other inmates, began last October in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge William Wayne Justice.
Final arguments are not expected before late September at the earliest, and a ruling in the case probably will not come before early 1980. The Justice Department and seven TDC inmates are plaintiffs in the suit.
"What looks like gratuitous repressiveness in the TDC is actually a very rational policy," Jackson said. "TDC officlas decided years ago they would not permit the kind of violence that goes on in other prison systems."
The price of preventing such inmate violence, he continued, is the loss of inmate freedom embodied in the TDC'S forced work policy.
All able-bodied male inmates work, and at least for the first few months of their sentences, at stoop labor on TDC farms. Jackson said the work details are "the symbolic whip . . . to TDC'S ideology."
"However, there are a lot of inmates who are willing to give up some of their freedom in order not to live in fear," he added.
Jackson's remarks echoed those of TDC Director W. J. Estelle Jr., who this week testified that the drugs, gangs and inmate violence that plague many large state prison systems are virtually unknown in the TDC's 14 units.
Estelle said he had "never seen a guard strike an inmate" during his seven years as TDC director. He acknowledged that building tenders may occasionally punish other inmates, but said there are few such incidents.
He also acknowledged that the TDC, the nation's largest state corrections system with about 25,000 inmates, operates seriously overcrowded prisons. About 1,000 inmates currently sleep on mattresses on the floors of two-man cells for lack of cell space, he said.
However, he said, new prison construction and temporary housing authorized by the last session of the state legislature should provide enough beds for all inmates by next April.
Salary increases enacted by the legislature should also reduce the TDC'S steep personnel turnover rate, now running at about 65 percent annually, he said.