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David Ruiz: profile of a By Eric Hartman David Ruiz lends more than just his name to the legal challenge that now looms before the Texas Department of Corrections in a Houston courtroom. Against the Texas prison system’s operative assumption that regimentation begets rehabilitation, he brings to bear the evidence of an entire adult life spent, save for a few months, as an inmate of TDC institutions. The lesson he invites us to draw from his experience is partly a matter of reproach, partly of irony. The reproach: that TDC’s harsh regime of “yes, sirno, sir” conformism promotes both unthinking submissiveness and bitter resentment, but never moral awakening. The irony: that his own strides toward rehabilitation have been made in spite of TDC’s efforts to bring him to heel, and largely because of his resolve to oppose by reasoned argument the arbitrary and degrading control prison authorities wield over inmates’ lives. Make no mistake: you’ll hear from this writ writer no fatuous moralizing about the “crime” of punishment by imprisonment. Rather, his concern is with conditions of confinement, and all he asks of us is what he asks of the courts that receive his many petitionsthat we weigh his evidence and heed his arguments. A jailhouse interview* At 37, Ruiz is already an old-timer at TDC, a veteran of stints at the Ellis, Eastham, Ramsey and Wynne units. He was sent up for armed robbery when he was still in his teens, serving eight years of a 12-year term before he got out in 1967. Within a year, he was back in, again for armed robbery, and this time he drew a 25-year sentence. He’s done nearly 11 uninterrupted years since then, his requests for parole having been repeatedly refused. Ruiz, who grew up as one of 13 children in a predominantly Spanishspeaking family on Austin’s east side, minces no words in describing the behavior that landed him in the peniten * In what. follows, remarks attributed to David Ruiz are drawn, unless otherwise noted, from an interview conducted on September 6 at the Travis County jail. \(Ruiz was there on a temporary transfer from TDC’s Wynne Unit so that he could appear in a civil suit brought by his ex-wife to terminate his tiary. “I was wild, running with a gang,” he recalls. The language barrier made it tough for him to get interested in school, he says; by the time he dropped out of the .seventh grade, he had already made his first trip to reform school at Gatesvile, where he was sent three more times before graduating to TDC. Ruiz doesn’t say what he expected when he arrived at TDC, but one gathers that, to a teenaged gang member who’d grown tougher and meaner in response to reform school brutality, what he encountered was familiara social system ruled by force and fear. Privileged convicts serving as guards and informants work, controlling the cell-blocks on behalf of prison administrators by keeping their fellow inmates divided and apprehensive. To survive in this environment, claims Ruiz, you had to prove you were strong. “If somebody was weak,” he says, “people stomped on him, and so did I.” But he took his violent selfassertiveness too far. He fought frequently, no-holds-barred, with building tenders and guards, and he tried to escape. FOr these and many lesser infractions, he wound up isolated much of the time in windowless cells, subsisting on short rations and sustaining himself by cultivating his anger toward the people who ran the system. His defiant conduct won him a reputation as a hard case. When he got out of prison in 1967, he worked awhile but eventually drifted back to the crowd he’d been part of before. “I didn’t know any trade,” he points out, “but I did know how to handle a gun.” He put that skill to use again, and was back inside TDC in no time. He resumed his self-destructive course where he’d left off, and might never have turned away from it but for Frances Cruz, a prison reform activist and attorney who was making the cause of inmates’ rights in Texas her own. The dedication this outsider showed as a prisoners’ advocate in battles with TDC was a new and unaccountable phenomenon in David Ruiz’s lifecertainly a moral example of a higher order than he had ever seen within the prison system. She impressed him profoundly, he says, prodding him to re-examine his “every man for himself” philosophy and, for the first time in his troubled life, find it wanting. his findings by writing that “the working conditions within TDC are generally good” and then went on in the same paragraph to say, “Not counting the field workers, probably 80 percent of the inmates work under comfortable conditions. . . .” That exception he allowed for field workers accounts for more than half of the inmates at any given time, and everyone except the medically disabled works in the fields at one time or another. Another example: Texas hired Eugene Newman, a former official of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to make a physical inspection of prison industries. He found “a total of 396 conditions which could be considered a violation of the OSHA standards,” but added that “only 15 would have been considered ‘serious hazards’ under OSHA criteria.” “Legitimate gripes” are not necessarily unconstitutional violations of civil rights, of course, and many of these are probably no worse than the hazardous conditions often found in similar industries outside the walls. But the Department of Corrections does have a special obligation to insure the safety of inmate workers because, as Willard wrote, “The relationship between an inmate and his supervisor is not quite the same as that between an employee and employer in the free world . . . how does the inmate quit if he finds the demands too severe?” What chance for change? No one knows what will come of all this, even if the prisoner-plaintiffs manage to prove their case in the courtroom. They’d like Judge Justice to order TDC to stop doing all the things they say it does that violate their civil rights. If they do convince the judge, they may well get an order mandating sweeping administrative remedies. But if the state’s past performance in similar situations is any indication, the appeals will drag on for years. \(Texas’ response to Judge Justice’s orders in Morales v. Turman, a similarly broad challenge of Texas Youth Council practices, comes to mindthat case went to trial in early 1973 and is still Besides, TDC is notorious for dragging its feet in implementing court decrees even the ones it formally agrees to. Implementation of the remedies sought by the plaintiffs in Ruiz v. Estelle would require fundamental changes in business as usual in Huntsville, and it’s hard to figure how the Department of Corrections in its present incarnation could pull them off. For the battle between it and its critics is not so much a dipute over the facts \(although the facts are by no means agreed of corrections and moral responsibility. And such things are not changed with a court order. 6 SEPTEMBER 22, 1978