Friday, November 18, 2005

David Ruiz wasted most of his 63 years, which ended Saturday in a Texas prison hospital bed. But while the prison system failed to reform him, Ruiz helped radically reform the system.

Born in Austin to migrant worker parents in 1942, Ruiz was only 17 when he was first sent to prison for robbing a gas station and stealing a car. On the few occasions when he got out of prison, he soon violated parole or committed new crimes. All but four years of his adult life were spent in a Texas prison.

In prison, Ruiz became one of a small group of "writ writers" in the early 1970s whose refusal to quit complaining about inhumane conditions finally won judicial attention.

U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice, then of Tyler, agreed to hear their pleas. Mostly by happenstance, Ruiz's name sits atop the list of prisoners whose writs were consolidated into what became known as the Ruiz case.

It took courage - or maybe it was simple, pig-headed pride in refusing to bend to the will of the system - for Ruiz and the other writ writers not to back down despite severe punishment, such as long stretches in isolation, or enticements to quit their crusade.

According to Charles Sullivan, a longtime prison reform activist who was involved in the Texas case, Ruiz once said "that he was offered parole in the mid-seventies by the prison authorities if he would drop his lawsuit. He turned them down flat!"

Still, the real work of forcing change was done by a dedicated group of prison-reform activists and lawyers who put in years of tedious research and litigation to prove just how cruel and abusive the Texas prison system was. Overcrowded cells, beatings and other mistreatment of prisoners, inmates used as guards over other inmates, little or no medical care - it was shamefully awful.

In the end, Justice forced Texas to end its plantation-style prison system and spend billions of dollars on new prisons, more guards and prisoners' medical care - all at a time when the state's growing population and a political atmosphere of strict law-and-order were sending thousands more convicts to Texas prisons.

Ruiz filed his writ in 1972. Justice ruled in 1980. Years of appeal and court monitoring followed. The case was not closed until 2002. For most of that time, Ruiz remained a prisoner, of the state and his own failures. Yet he helped compel his keepers to change their ways, and in doing so he won a small but permanent place in Texas history.

Ruiz finally left the prison system. He'll be buried today in Austin's Assumption Cemetery, mourned by few but never to be completely forgotten.