Published on:

Jail Overcrowding Deemed Cruel and Unusual Punishment


This case originated almost two decades ago when the plaintiff-prisoners, complaining of the conditions in the Harris County jails, filed a class action lawsuit against certain Harris County officials (“County”). The district court, based on extensive hearings, found the conditions in the jail to be inhumane. Subsequently, on February 4, 1975, the plaintiffs and the County entered into a “Consent Judgment” calling for renovations of existing facilities, the development of a new jail, and improvements in staff and security at the jails. The litigation, however, was far from over, and the “district court retained jurisdiction to issue interim orders.” Ten months later, the district court issued an opinion providing guidelines for streamlining the criminal justice system, implementing an effective pretrial release program, and improving the living conditions in the jails.

A New York Criminal Lawyer said that, by 1982, the County had completed a new jail (the “Franklin Jail”), with more than three times the capacity of the old central jail (the “old San Jacinto Jail”). The County also maintained a detention center in Humble, Texas, and upon the opening of the Franklin Jail, the County closed the old San Jacinto Jail. The district court, however, remained involved in the jails’ operation and addressed staffing and supervision concerns in the jails. After consulting with an expert, the County determined that it would need additional space, and therefore the County authorized construction of a third jail (the “new San Jacinto Jail”) and the renovation of the old San Jacinto Jail.

A New York Criminal Lawyer said that, eager to be free from the yoke of litigation, the County filed a motion for final judgment and permanent injunction. In order to assess the County’s compliance with its prior orders and to determine the maximum capacity of the jails, the district court appointed three monitors–a special master, a medical monitor-assessor, and a jail monitor-assessor (collectively the “monitors”). The monitors examined eighteen conditions and found that the County had complied fully with nine conditions, had complied partially with seven conditions, and had failed to comply with only two conditions of the court’s prior orders. Additionally, the monitors found that, as of June 1, 1987, the county jails’ population exceeded their design capacities by only five percent. Although the County had made substantial progress in conforming the jails to constitutional requirements, the monitors recommended that the court continue supervising the jails in light of the County’s “inordinate delay in achieving substantial compliance.”

Meanwhile, the State of Texas was embroiled in a separate controversy involving the conditions of its own prisons. After years of litigation, in 1985, the State entered into a stipulation, requiring it to limit its prison population to ninety-five percent of capacity. This agreement translated into difficulties for the County; in order to stay within the limits set by its stipulation, the State periodically refused to admit “convicted felons sentenced to the State prison system, and ready for transfer, but awaiting transfer in the county jails.” The State’s policies were disastrous for the County. Whereas the County had been near compliance with the district court’s orders in 1987, by September of 1988, the monitors found that the population of the county jails had swelled to thirty percent over design capacity, resulting in dangerous overcrowding. The monitors determined that the appropriate population levels at the Franklin Jail and the detention center were ninety-five percent of design capacity, and the monitors recommended that the district court set population caps that, in time, would allow the proper population level to be obtained.

After receiving the monitors’ report, the court ordered the County to deliver at least 290 transfer-ready felons per week to the Texas Department of Corrections (later Texas Department of Criminal Justice–Institutional Division). The State, however, refused to accept the transfers, and admitted only the number of prisoners from the County specified in its scheduled admissions policy. Thus, the County was unable to comply with the court order.

The County’s inmate population continued to balloon, and in December of 1988, the County argued that it could not comply with the court’s order without the State’s participation. Thus, the County moved the district court to force the plaintiff-prisoners to join the State as a defendant. The court refused the motion, but allowed the County to file a third-party complaint.

Meanwhile, the monitors continued their work, and they saw the population of the county jails continue to swell. “To put this in some perspective,” the monitors noted, “Harris County now has more prisoners sleeping on the floor of its detention facilities than the total number of convicted offenders incarcerated in fourteen states.” A New York Drug Possession Lawyer said from August 14 through August 18, 1989, the district court held a merits liability bench trial. Witnesses testified about the deleterious effects of the overcrowding on the jails, and one of the monitors described how protection suffered as a result of “inadequate staff, inadequate ventilation and food service, supply shortages, precarious fire safety, and a medical system on the verge of collapse.”

After hearing the testimony and conducting additional hearings, the district court issued its findings of fact and conclusions of law on September 25, 1989. The court found that, primarily as a result of “extreme overcrowding,” the conditions in the jails were “cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.”

Additionally, the district court found that under Texas law, the County was responsible for the violations, but the court also found that the State was jointly liable “because, under Texas law, it had the ‘primary responsibility for convicted felons.’ Finally, the district court transferred the County’s third-party complaint against the State to the Ruiz court. The focus of the litigation then turned to the remedial aspects of the case. After the State and the County had submitted their remedial plans and the courts had held hearings, the combined courts entered a joint remedial order.

In the most recent district court proceedings surrounding the jails, the district court, entered a “final order” which, inter alia, modified a 1975 “Consent Judgment” and other subsequent orders. The final order also mandated the implementation of a remedial plan that was jointly submitted by the County and State. Further, the district court’s order dictated that the State pay the full expense of the programs included in the joint remedial plan with the exception of certain programs falling within the traditional role of county detention facilities. Additionally, the district court set the constitutional capacity of the jails at 112.5% of design capacity, ordering the State to pay a fine for each inmate in excess of that cap housed in the Harris County jails. The district court also allocated the costs of monitors appointed to survey the conditions of the jails, taxing the State for ninety percent of fees incurred by the monitors and the County for the remaining ten percent of the monitors’ fees. The State appealed.

The State contends that the district court erred in requiring the State to pay what it characterizes as “anticipatory contempt fines” without a hearing. The State also argues that the district court abused its discretion by establishing the constitutional capacity of the jails without a hearing. Next, the State asserts that the district court erred in its allocation of the costs of the monitors, of the fines, and of the joint remedial plan between the County and the State. Finally, in the alternative, the State argues that the Court should certify the question of the respective responsibilities of the State and the County to the Texas Supreme Court to conform the allocation of responsibility between the State and the County to state law. The plaintiff-prisoners cross appealed arguing that the district court improperly modified the 1975 consent judgment and other subsequent orders.

The issue in this case is whether the district court erred and gravely abuses its discretion in modifying the 1975 consent judgment and other subsequent orders.

The Court in resolving the State’s argument with regard to district court’s assessment of sanction said, that the State argues that the district court violated the State’s due process rights by issuing a contempt finding without affording the State a hearing. A New York Sex Crimes Lawyer said the State contends that the fines included in the September 29 final order are in essence “anticipatory contempt findings” imposed without a show-cause hearing and therefore violate due process and the Eleventh Amendment. Finding that the State received all of the process it was due, the Court reject the State’s argument.

The characterization of the contingent payments ordered by the court affects the procedures required for their implementation. The district court initially characterized its $50 per inmate charge as a fine. Later, the court “clarified” its order, describing the $50 charge as a remedial sanction. The County and the plaintiff-prisoners argue that the district court’s “clarification” illustrates that the penalty for violating the cap is remedial. Thus, the County and the plaintiff-prisoners conclude that the State has “not been ordered to pay money because they violated a federal court order; they have simply been directed to provide funds to alleviate unconstitutional conditions caused by their failure to reduce populations to constitutionally acceptable levels.”

To determine the character of the sanction imposed by the court, we must examine the nature of the court’s actions. The Supreme Court recently noted that, the paradigmatic civil contempt sanction order involves confining a contemnor indefinitely until he complies with an affirmative command such as an order to pay alimony, or to surrender property ordered to be turned over to a receiver, or to make a conveyance. The Court then described the closest analogy to that paradigm civil contempt situation–“a per diem fine imposed for each day a contemnor fails to comply with an affirmative court order.” That is precisely what happened in the instant case.

Although the court did not specifically describe its fines as contempt sanctions, the monetary penalties in the order accrue only to the extent that the court-ordered population caps are exceeded. Thus, the court order mandates a maximum inmate population and imposes a fine if that order is violated.

The fact that the fines are not to be paid to the court, but are remedial in nature, does not undermine the conclusion that the sanctions are for contempt. In fact, a contempt sanction is considered civil if it is remedial and for the benefit of the complainant. The nature of the contempt guides the proceedings which are required before a court can issue sanctions. Civil contempt sanctions “are considered to be coercive and avoidable through obedience, and thus may be imposed in an ordinary civil proceeding upon notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

In the instant case, after reviewing the pleadings and hearing oral argument, the district court, entered an order rejecting, the State’s motion to modify the final order and to stay the imposition of fines. Prior to entering that order, the district court heard the State’s contentions that the court should stay the fine, but found the State’s reasons inadequate. This hearing took place before the March 31, 1993 deadline for the reduction in prison population, and only after this hearing did the sanctions take effect. This afforded the State adequate notice and opportunity to be heard.

In the instant case, the district court conducted a hearing. The court provided the State with an opportunity to explain why it should not be required to adhere to the order and why the order should be modified. The court, however, found the State’s contentions inadequate and concluded that no modification of the sanctions was in order.

The State next contends that the district court erred in holding the State solely responsible for paying the sanctions for overcrowding. The Court rejects this argument.

As noted above, the district court clearly has the power to assess contempt fines for a violation of its population cap order. Here, the district court specifically found that the “majority of the problems at the Harris County Facility resulted from the large number of TDCJ inmates which the State will not receive.” The court also noted that “the primary responsibility for the overcrowding crisis in the Harris County Jail Facility lies with the State Defendants who have the power and the ability through legislation to act to resolve the situation. The State has declined to do so.” In light of these determinations, the district court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that it could ensure compliance with its order by fining the State for overcrowding. The fact that the Court did not identically fine the County to ensure its compliance with the court order does not indicate an abuse of discretion.

The State next argues that the allocation of the fines is erroneous because it ignores the relative responsibilities of the County and the State for the prisons under state law. The Court finds this argument to be without merit.

In Alberti I, the Court noted that, “the state courts should eventually determine whether the state or the county is responsible for transfer-ready felons in the county’s jails.” Nevertheless, the Court agreed with the district court that “the fact that the State of Texas has virtually complete freedom to decide who will be responsible for the confinement of felons provides no shield for liability for the State Defendants in this case because state law clearly places primary responsibility for the confinement of felons upon them.”

Moreover, in denying the State’s petition for prohibition, stay, and rehearing, the Court rejected the State’s contention that “the legislature, by enacting H.B. 93, and the parties by their settlement agreement, had changed the legal relationship between the state and the counties”. Thus, the Court refused to upset its affirmance of the district court’s conclusion that the State had a responsibility for transfer-ready felons in county jails. Similarly, in Alberti II, the Court is unpersuaded by the State’s argument that under Texas law, it was not responsible for transfer-ready felons. Simply, current Texas law does not affect the State’s liability for the unconstitutional conditions directly attributable to the State’s refusal to accept transfer-ready felons. The district court, after dealing with this case for two decades, determined the most appropriate methods for ensuring that the jails meet constitutional standards. In assessing sanctions against the State to meet this goal, the court did not abuse its discretion.

Finally, the Court rejects the State’s invitation to certify the question of the relative responsibilities of the County and the State to the Texas Supreme Court. Under Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure 114(a), a question of law can be certified to the Supreme Court of Texas if it appears to the certifying court that there is no controlling precedent in the decisions of the Supreme Court of Texas. The Court have also noted, however, that certification does not constitute a panacea for resolution of those complex or difficult decisions of state law which have not been answered by the highest court of the state.

In this case, although the Texas Supreme Court has not passed on the relative responsibilities of the State and the County regarding conditions of overcrowding caused by the State’s refusal to accept transfer-ready felons, we have previously held that, the Court is not persuaded that the state’s duty in regard to the problems of the jails is so uncertain. Moreover, the Court have repeatedly rejected the State’s contention that state law absolves the State of all of its responsibility for transfer-ready felons. Accordingly, the Court rejects the State’s invitation to certify this question to the Texas Supreme Court.

The State also argues that the district court erred by requiring the State to fund all of the costs of the joint remedial plan except for those costs “falling within the traditional role of County detention facilities.” Specifically, the State contends that the court: (1) “should not have imposed a remedy at odds with the statutes implementing the settlement agreements in the state court lawsuits”; and (2) should not have “specifically required the State defendants to fund the creation of alternatives to incarceration in Harris County.” The Court rejects both of these arguments.

The State’s first contention is disposed of easily. As noted above, the Court found, on multiple occasions, that neither state law nor the state court settlement agreement affects the State’s liability for the unconstitutional conditions in the Harris County jails caused by the State’s refusal to accept transfer-ready felons. In prior proceedings of this case, the Court held that state law imposes a responsibility on the State for those transfer ready-felons, and affirmed the district court’s findings that the State acted with conscious disregard in shirking that responsibility. Consequently, the Court also affirmed the district court’s findings that the State was liable–the settlement agreement and state law notwithstanding–for the unconstitutional conditions that it helped to create and to maintain in the county jails. The Court finds no error in the court’s conclusion that the “primary responsibility for the unconstitutional prison conditions, and therefore the primary financial burden to alleviate those conditions, falls on the state.”

As to the State’s second argument, the Court disagrees with the contention that the district court’s order allocating the costs of the joint plan improperly infringed upon the State’s ability to manage its prisons. The district court did not mandate programs for the State to institute; instead, it merely required that the State pay for programs which the State itself, in conjunction with the county, developed as part of the joint remedial plan to correct the overcrowding situation in the county jails. This did not constitute an abuse of discretion.

The district court found that the State’s actions were the primary cause of the constitutional violations at the county jail. The court also noted that without state-funded action, the constitutional violations would continue. Because the payments are to ensure that the State’s future treatment of transfer-ready felons is constitutional, the district court’s order regarding the funding of the joint remedial plan is well within the power of the district court and the contours of the Constitution.

The State next avers that the district court improperly taxed the State for ninety percent of the costs of the monitors. The Court also rejects this contention.

The guidelines for compensation of special masters, or referees, auditors, examiners, and assessors is set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 53(a). This Rule provides, in part, that, the compensation to be allowed to a master shall be fixed by the court, and shall be charged upon such of the parties as the court may direct.”

The State first contends that it cannot “be assessed any of the monitors’ costs as costs of court because the Monitors were appointed solely to deal with issues arising from the suit between the County and the Plaintiffs.” This position is insupportable. Perceiving the effect of the State’s actions on the jails as early as December of 1987, the district court altered the charge of the monitors. At that time, the court issued an order stating that “in view of the sudden and sharp increase in the population of the Harris County Jail due in part to the imposition of population quotas by the TDC, the Monitors shall review the cause(s) of the overcrowding and assess its impact on the jails.” Thus, by the end of 1987, the monitors were evaluating the impact of the State’s actions on the county jails.

Although the monitors were specifically instructed to determine the effect of State action as early as December of 1987, the court did not charge the State for any of the monitors’ expenses incurred before the State became a party to the lawsuit. The State was joined as a party to the lawsuit in January of 1989, and the district court’s final order taxed the State for ninety percent of the monitors’ fees incurred from February 1, 1989.

The district court determined that the actions of the State were the primary cause of the overcrowding plaguing the county’s jails. It is this overcrowding that in large part necessitated the monitors’ presence. The Court finds no authority, and the State cites none, for the proposition that the district court abused its discretion by holding the State responsible for ninety percent of the costs of the monitors for the time period after the State entered the litigation.

For the foregoing reasons, the decision of the district court, except to the extent that the “final order” modifies the district court’s prior orders regarding the population caps of the old San Jacinto jail, the Humble detention center and the Franklin Jail, and the provision of jail rules, is affirmed. As to the district court’s modifications in those two areas, the Court reversed.

Even criminals have the right to a humane jail facility. The facilities where the inmates were confined should comply with the constitutional standards provided for by law. Suffolk Criminal Attorney and Suffolk Assault Attorneys at Stephen Bilkis and Associates are here to help you, and make sure that the inmates’ constitutional rights be upheld.

Contact Information