"Maybe it's bad for a prisoner to have too much spirit. Maybe too much awareness and hope pierces the heart, leaving too many sorrows. After 10 years of imprisonment, I felt wasted and barren."
In 1960, a young man from San Antonio, Texas was arrested for robbery, convicted and sent to a state prison farm to pick cotton. He denied committing the robberies, but couldn't afford a lawyer to appeal his cases. With only an 8th grade education, he read every law book he could find access to and filed his appeal pro se. WRIT WRITER tells the story of jailhouse lawyer Fred Cruz and the legal battle he waged to secure what he believed to be the constitutional rights of Texas prisoners.
Cruz grew up Mexican American in the racially segregated Texas of the 1940s and 1950s, surrounded by a growing drug trade operated by some of his own relatives. His parents divorced when he was a boy, and he and his brother had frequent run-ins with the law as teenagers. Cruz developed a heroin habit, was convicted of robbery by assault when he was 21 and sent to prison in 1961.
By most measures, Cruz was an ordinary criminal. But in prison he studied law in order to file an appeal of his conviction and 50-year prison sentence. Before long the harsh field labor, brutal corporal punishments and arbitrary disciplinary hearings experienced by prisoners prompted Cruz to file lawsuits against the prison system. He was classified as an agitator and transferred to the Ellis Unit—“the Alcatraz of Texas”—a maximum-security prison overseen by C.L. McAdams, the most feared warden in Texas.
Under pressure from McAdams and his guards to drop his lawsuits, Cruz was subjected to long periods in solitary confinement on a bread and water diet. Despite the isolation and confiscation of his legal papers, he managed to help other prisoners with lawsuits. In 1968, when an inmate was caught with legal papers prepared by Cruz for Muslim prisoners who alleged that their civil rights were being violated by prison authorities, tensions mounted and came to blows. The uprising that ensued drew the attention of outsiders, including attorneys Frances Jalet and William Bennett Turner, who assisted in Cruz’s watershed case, Cruz v. Beto.
Told by wardens, convicts and former prisoners who knew Cruz, WRIT WRITER weaves contemporary and archival film footage to evoke the fascinating transformation of a prisoner and a prison system still haunted by their pasts.
Filmmaker Susanne Mason provided updates in April 2008 on what the people featured in WRIT WRITER have been doing since filming ended.
With the exception of one, all of the prisoners and ex-convicts interviewed in the film live in Texas. Benny Clewis is still serving his sentence in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Institutional Division, also known as the Texas prison system. Al Slaton passed away in 2005.
William Bennett Turner practices law in San Francisco. He has taught First Amendment and the Press in the Department of Journalism of the University of California at Berkeley and has published over 30 articles in various magazines, newspapers and law reviews.
Steve J. Martin is in private practice as a corrections consultant and is actively involved in prison litigation in several states. He has served as expert to the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, in both prison and jail cases in Georgia, Mississippi, Maryland, Guam and Saipan.
Former wardens C. L. McAdams and Robert Cousins passed away prior to the completion of WRIT WRITER.
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