He wasn’t just any old Mexican.
— John V. Martinez
The biggest challenge making this project was that they’re not famous people, and there’s very little documentation.
— Susanne Mason
“He knew the law. He could put it on paper and he could talk it.” Ex-convict Floyd Patterson offers this evaluation of Fred Cruz with no small deference, in part because Cruz learned the law while he was in prison, in Texas no less. Sentenced to 50 years for armed robbery in 1960, when he was just 20 years old, Cruz was sent to Huntsville, where the warden believed in punishment as a means to maintain order: “If you beat one, you control 100.” Cruz wrote in his journal, “I knew right then, if I wanted to appeal and I couldn’t afford a lawyer, I had to do it myself.”
As recounted in Susanne Mason’s fascinating documentary, Writ Writer (premiering 3 June on Independent Lens), Cruz’s story is by turns tragic and inspiring, astonishing and all too typical. With narration adapted by Dagoberto Gilb from Cruz’s journals (read by Jesse Borrego), the film tracks Cruz’s experiences, beginning with his difficult childhood (in a San Antonio barrio, “the Mexican part of town”), abandoned by his father and “running wild” with his brother. “By the time I was 15,” he says, “I was running with people who did bad things to make money, criminals.” Following his brother’s fatal shooting, in the back by a policeman, and Cruz’s own accidental gunshot murder of his best friend, he turned down some especially dark roads, becoming addicted to heroin and, as he puts it, an eighth-grade dropout and “what you could call a certified juvenile delinquent.”
Once he was imprisoned, however, it appears that Cruz found his calling. The system in Texas was notorious during the 1960s, as ex-convict Carl Robins remembers, inmates “worked 15 hours, and I mean hard work. You just didn’t know how you was gonna make it” (photos show men on chain gangs, prisoners carrying collapsed fellows, guards on horseback). Prisoners were allowed to keep whatever weapons they could make, to “keep order,” and punishment by officials, Patterson says, included beating to a “bloody pulp” and sodomy.
On one level, the film suggests, brutality of some sort is built into a prison system. Civil rights attorney William Bennett Turner notes, “Putting people in a confined environment creates relationships between the keepers and the kept that are true in prisons, jails, lockups, Guantánamo, wherever you go. It’s a power relationship where individual human beings have power over the intimate details of the lives of the people who are the captives. And that always opens the door to abuse.” But on another level, Writ Writer posits that violence, tyranny, and corruption, however systemic, are best combated by rational thinking, by legal, systematic means.
Cruz stands as Exhibit A, a self-trained “jailhouse lawyer” who took it upon himself to learn to write a writ of habeas corpus in order to make himself — and soon enough, many other fellow inmates — heard in courts of law. “Writ writers,” notes Turner, a “viewed as dangerous” by authorities used to holding full sway over small domains, who tend to see such activity as trouble-making, threatening to their supremacy. A file paper on Cruz calls him “intellectually bright” and a “potential agitator.” As for Cruz, he writes in his journal: “All men are created equal. Just because a man is illiterate, doesn’t mean he don’t deserve to be heard in a court of law.”
The film points out the serial obstacles to Cruz’s efforts, on his own and others’ behalf, including the Director of the Texas Department of Corrections, George Beto, a PhD and Lutheran minister introduced talking to the camera as he drives to one of the many prisons over which he holds jurisdiction (“I like to visit each prison at least every 10 days,” he asserts). When Beto gets wind of Cruz’s research and writing, he has the prisoner transferred to another unit, “for rehabilitative treatment,” says Cruz. “They wanted to cure me of my writ writing activity.”
But as often as the prison officials beat Cruz, put him in solitary, or otherwise disciplined him, he persisted. The warden and guards made up rules as they went, at one point searching his cell and discovering Cruz’s copy of the Constitution. Though Cruz argued that the Constitution was not contraband, Warden Carl Luther McAdams decided it was, and sent him to solitary yet again.
Ex-convict and a friend to Cruz, Rudy Portillo observes, “I think that Fred treated law as an artist would treat a brush or a paint.” To that end, he wrote letters to everyone seeking help, from representatives and lawyers to the FBI, law students, and judges. One lawyer, civil rights advocate Frances Jalet, visited with Texas inmates frequently. She and Cruz, who was many years her junior, developed a romance as well (“I wrote her every moment I could,” he writes in his journal, “Even the thought of Frances was like I had been released”). The film reveals this plot point by way of new warden Robert Cousins’ horror: angry that she and Cruz were working together on other inmates’ cases (“My blood was boiling”), he says he gave them time, then “I grabbed that door and jerked it open a hour later. There they were, making love on the couch in my office!”
Amid the drama, Cruz and Jalet’s legal teamwork was extraordinarily productive. And Cruz became a model for subsequent jailhouse lawyers, prisoners who find the official legal system inadequate, distracted, or corrupted, and so must devise their own means to make themselves heard. As much as the film raises up Cruz’s activities as heroic and his energies as frankly brilliant, the broader problems remain. When at last he was released, he found it hard to resist his past or to live with the trauma he endured in prison, and was soon using heroin again. Ironically, Beto, who resigned after the state court ruled against him in Cruz v. Beto (1971), articulates the essential problem of prisons: “The American public,” he says, “needs to decide what it expects prisons to do. One day the public clamors for revenge, the next day it accuses prison administrators of being brutal to prisoners. We live in a tension and I’m not complaining about the tension, but I mention it to indicate that society needs to make up its mind what it expects prisons to do.” That decision has yet to be made.