Poets and Prisoners


Poets, as the saying goes, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world—a description that aptly fits the poet whose work appears in this issue. David Ruiz, who died in Galveston last month at a prison hospital, is known throughout Texas as the man who lent his name to the longest-running prison litigation in U.S. history, Ruiz v. Estelle. The case officially began with Ruiz’s 1972 handwritten complaint and ended in 2002 with the termination of federal oversight of the Texas prison system. The case took eight years to get to trial and the trial itself lasted nearly a year. The result was a 1980 landmark decision in which Judge William Wayne Justice wrote that “It is impossible for a written opinion to convey the pernicious conditions and the pain and degradation which ordinary inmates suffer within TDC prison walls.”

But as Eric Hartman noted in these pages on the eve of trial, David Ruiz lent far more than just his name to the case against what was then known as the Texas Department of Corrections. One of 13 children, he was born in 1942 to a family of migrant workers and grew up on the east side of Austin. By the time he had dropped out of public school in the 7th grade, he had already made his first trip to reform school. “I was wild, running with a gang,” Ruiz told Hartman in a 1978 interview. The wildness continued for a long time, but eventually was transformed, thanks to several fellow inmates, known collectively as the writ-writers—and to a formidable woman whose name has somehow disappeared from the retelling of the epic drama of Ruiz v. Estelle. In 1967 at the age of 57, Frances Jalet Cruz dusted off her law degree, moved to Texas from the northeast, and immersed herself in prison rights work.

As Ruiz himself would repeatedly acknowledge, it was Frances Cruz who helped transform him from an angry, violent man who wrote habeas corpus petitions attacking his own convictions, to a man who used the language of federal civil rights law and state prison statutes to attack an entire system held together by an insidious practice in which privileged convicts—”building tenders”—served as guards and informants .

Ruiz v. Estelle brought the Texas prison system into the 20th century. But overcrowding, inadequate staffing, poor medical treatment, prison gangs, rape, and safety issues have followed it into the 21st century. In September, a jury in Wichita Falls heard horrific testimony in the case of Roderick Keith Johnson, a 37-year-old former inmate of the Allred Unit, who testified that for 18 months he had been repeatedly raped—rented out by inmates and sold as a sex slave with the complicity of prison officials and staff members. The jury rejected his claims.

As for David Ruiz, at the time of his death he was serving a life sentence for aggravated robbery at the Gorry Unit in Hunstvsille—and writing writs to the end, concerned more than ever about the lack of adequate medical treatment, the problems of young offenders, and the abuse of immigrants in Texas prisons. In 2003 he began corresponding with Kathryn Kendall, a professor of English and drama at Wharton County Junior College, who runs an innovative program in which inmates serve as writing tutors to students. Kendall kindly forwarded his poem to the Observer and we are publishing on page 21.

Ruiz had originally contacted Kendall to ask for help in writing his autobiography. But although he could talk about his life in prison and the landmark case that bears his name, she says that he found it too painful to talk about his early years and his family. David Ruiz—Que en paz descanse.