By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
In December 1995 TDCJ inmate Robert D. Sikes filed a federal lawsuit against guard Juan F. Gaytan. A convicted robber, Sikes maintained that in August of that year his left shoulder was dislocated during an assault by Gaytan at the Connally Unit in Kenedy, southeast of San Antonio, after he accidentally spit on another officer. A jury agreed with Sikes and awarded him $250,000. The judge ruled that Sikes's court-appointed lawyer should receive $95,000 in legal fees, but the state hasn't ponied up yet.
"The attorney general's office, with all of its resources, puts you through all sort of a hell," says Per Ann Hardy, Sikes's attorney. "And then when you win, they walk away and say, "Oh, you sued the guards; [the state] has no liability. Collect it from the guards.' "
If that's the case, says Hardy, the AG's office didn't need to appeal the verdict to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and make her incur additional expenses.
"It is a David and Goliath situation," says Hardy.
But even though the state refused to pay up, Hardy says sometimes the truth prevails. Other times the truth is stranger than fiction. At least that was the case in the other federal courtroom victory over TDCJ.
In 1995 San Antonio attorney Glen Magnum was appointed to represent inmate Timothy Bolk, who was serving time for aggravated robbery and burglary. During a period of two years or so, while working on a TDCJ field crew out of the Briscoe Unit near Dilley, Bolk was assigned the unenviable task of picking up rattlesnakes that other inmate field workers would pin to the ground with their hoes. Bolk eventually was bitten by one of the rattlers. Bolk survived, but Magnum says his client continued to have physical and emotional problems for three months afterward, but TDCJ officials denied any responsibility for the accident.
"Their story," says Magnum with a laugh, "was that not only did they not order him to pick up the rattlesnakes, they ordered him to stay away from rattlesnakes. That he had some kind of fascination with snakes that caused him to approach them and pick them up while they were still alive. My reaction was, "You've got to be kidding. You're actually going to go with this story at trial?' "
The state attorneys did, and they lost -- sort of. Although the jury ruled in Bolk's favor, it refused to award him any money.
"The problem," sympathizes Hardy, "is that these individual correctional officers have available to them the awesome resources of the attorney general's office of the state of Texas. These guys provide these services to the correctional officers like there's no tomorrow. But when a judgment is rendered against the individual, the state says it has no obligation to pay. There needs to be some overall changes in the law. You can't expect private attorneys to do this for nothing. But as long as TDCJ can get away with not having to pay, they won't have the motivation not to hire the type of guards that do what these guards have been doing."
The bottom line is that because of state law, it's much easier to prove that an individual guard or guards have violated an inmate's civil rights than it is to prove that the policies of a prison system are intentionally unconstitutional. That explains why, in the Knox case, U.S. District Judge Sim Lake recently dismissed the TDCJ's executive director, Gary Johnson, and several other top prison officials as defendants; the case is still pending in Lake's court. What's more, despite the reforms brought about by the Ruiz case, Judge Justice, in his most recent ruling, concedes that excessive use of force by TDCJ guards remains a serious problem.
"It is found that in numerous cases brought before the court," wrote Justice, "there was no justification for use of force by TDCJ officers. In some situations, use of force was appropriate, but the force was entirely disproportional to the circumstances in which it was imposed.In TDCJ penal institutions, the prevalence of excessive use of force constitutes cruel and unusual punishment." The judge added that "despite their pleas to prison officials, [prisoners] are refused protection." "Instead," he continued, "they pay for protection, in money, services, or sex. Correctional officers continue to rely on the physical control of excessive force to enforce order."
Watchdogs like the ACLU's Harrell agree, saying that abuse of inmates is a continuing problem, one exacerbated by massive prison expansion. But Harrell hopes that the lawsuits recently filed by his organization, like Knox's, and those to come, will serve as a warning to TDCJ and its employees.
"We are going to win this case," says Harrell, "and the individual officers are going to be taught a lesson. We want to take this case and educate actors in the system who are just like officers Williams and Van Buren who will know that there are people like the ACLU watching their steps, and there are consequences. We are stepping up our assault on the criminal justice system of Texas."