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How David Ruiz stood up to the Texas injustice system
The legacy of a fighter

January 27, 2006 | Page 6

DAVID RUIZ, whose historic federal class-action lawsuit kept the state of Texas under court mandate for prison reform for more than 20 years, died November 11 in a Galveston prison at the age of 62.A self-educated jailhouse lawyer, he moved from writing challenges to his own conviction to taking on human rights abuses against all prisoners.

Ruiz v. Estelle began with Ruiz' 1972 complaint, which was handwritten at least partially on toilet paper. Ruiz claimed that overcrowded and understaffed Texas prisons were brutally violent and denied prisoners medical care and basic human rights.

The trial began in 1978. Hundreds of prisoners testified with Ruiz about atrocious prison conditions. Other prisoners in Ruiz' unit held a work stoppage in solidarity which spread to thousands of prisoners in almost all of the prisons in the Texas system.

In 1980 Judge William Wayne Justice ruled in favor of Ruiz and placed the Texas Department of Corrections under federal oversight. In his court order, Justice cited the "staggering magnitude" of abuses in the system and stated 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."

"If you cage an animal and kick him every day, one day that animal is going to attack," Ruiz told an AP reporter in a 1992 interview. "I never asked for a Holiday Inn. I asked to be treated as a human being."

The most lasting contribution of Ruiz' lawsuit was the ending of the plantation style "building tender" system in which stronger inmates were hand selected, like slave overseers, to be the virtual guards and keep fellow prisoners under control. An inmate could be tortured or murdered for failing to pick enough cotton or dig a deep enough ditch out in the field.

Wardens singled out jailhouse lawyers who complained to the federal courts about the horrific violence; it was the job of the building tenders to retaliate. Building tenders beat, raped and murdered with impunity, and they received special privileges from the wardens for their efforts.

Prison officials hated Ruiz and resisted the changes the lawsuit mandated. Ruiz refused an offer of freedom if he would drop his lawsuit.

The Texas Legislature passed laws to reduce overcrowding, but by the mid 1980's the Texas prisons were among the most violent in the country. Bonds were passed to build more prisons, but the prison population grew too fast to alleviate the overcrowded conditions.

In 1999 Judge Justice ruled that the state prisons had failed to rehabilitate themselves. A staff of lawyers had assembled 80 witnesses whose tales of inmate abuse were so horrifying that several observers could not listen to them. Justice ruled that the court would maintain oversight of the prison system and imposed time limits for making necessary improvements.

"The evidence before the court revealed a prison underworld in which rapes, beatings and servitude are the currency of power," said Justice. "To preserve their physical safety, some vulnerable inmates simply subject to being bought and sold among groups of prison predators...To expect such a world to rehabilitate wrong-doers is absurd. To allow such a world to exist is unconstitutional."

At the time of his death, Ruiz was serving a life-sentence for aggravated robbery; he spent all but four years of his adult life in prison. He spent the last 21 years of his life in the miserable, lonely conditions of administrative segregation, but he continued to fight for prisoners' rights until the end. His main concerns were the needs of young inmates, lack of adequate medical care, and the treatment of immigrants in prison. In 1972, only one doctor served the entire Texas prison system; the Ruiz lawsuit changed that drastically.

Ruiz dropped out of school in 7th grade and spent enough time in reform school to lose faith in the system. He turned to gangs for identity and support. Like Stan Tookie Williams, from prison he urged young people to reject gang violence and to fight for human rights for all.

While Ruiz did not die by state execution, he firmly believed that he was murdered by the Texas prison system. Although the death certificate says that he died of "natural causes," Ruiz left behind a paper trail that suggests otherwise. His medical records show that he was diagnosed with cancer in 2002 but was not treated for it, nor told about it, until 2005. He also had contracted Hepatitis C from unsanitary conditions in his prison unit.

After writing grievances and letters demanding treatment for six months, he received minimal treatment, which was discontinued after six months. His medical records reveal other conditions that were not treated. In a 2004 letter, Ruiz told the president of the University of Texas Medical Branch responsible for prison medical care that "denial of medical treatment constitutes a conspiracy to murder me slowly."

Bonds passed to correct the conditions in the Ruiz lawsuit led to the building of many new prisons in Texas--and to an unprecedented explosion in the number of people incarcerated. The increase in the prison population clearly violates restrictions imposed by Judge Justice, and the number of poorly paid and poorly trained guards is woefully inadequate. Violent Texas prison gangs formed for self-protection are legendary.

The impact of the Ruiz lawsuit rattled prison cages across the nation, and in 1996, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) was passed to silence the voice of prison inmates. One of the features of the PLRA restricts the time span of court orders, even existing ones, to two years. In 2001, federal oversight of the Ruiz case was ended, but not because all conditions of the lawsuit had been met.

As soon as the PLRA became law, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn applied for release under the time limits. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Justice's ruling that the PLRA was unconstitutional. Cornyn is now a Texas senator and one of only a few Republicans who voted against John McCain's gentle anti-torture bill.

David Ruiz was also an artist and a poet whose work reflected his pride in his Chicano and Native heritage and his understanding of the nature of the system which oppressed him.

Judge William Justice, now 86, sat quietly among the family, friends and ex-prisoners at Ruiz' funeral at a church in East Austin.

David Ruiz is credited by many ex-inmates for ending torture in Texas prisons. He took on a vicious system and won substantial victories. He left a huge thorn in the side of that system which is a constant reminder of what can be accomplished by attacking the system from within.
Cindy Beringer, Austin, Texas

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