Menus Subscribe Search

Righting Wrongs by Writing Writs

• May 19, 2008 • 12:00 PM

A documentary looks at historic injustice in the Texas prison system — and comments on the habeas corpus battles of the war on terror.

During the 11 years it took to make Writ Writer, a concise and compelling documentary premiering June 3 on the PBS series Independent Lens, some issue addressed in the film — prison overcrowding, say, or allegations of abuse by guards — would appear in the headlines. “This should be coming out right now,” producer/director Susanne Mason would think. But she never expected the film’s central issue — habeas corpus, or the right of a prisoner to petition a court for release — to be reopened for debate. A series of court decisions over many decades had firmly established the tenet, with roots in English common law that predates the Magna Carta, as a fundamental safeguard of liberty.

Then came 9/11, the war on terror and the Bush administration’s creative interpretations of constitutional law. For several years now, the Supreme Court has been struggling to determine whether “enemy combatants” held by the U.S. military at the Guantánamo Bay facility in Cuba have the right to appeal their indefinite imprisonment to a federal judge. A ruling on that issue — not necessarily definitive — is expected before the end of the current term in June.

Video: Watch a clip from Writ Writer

So Writ Writer is arriving at an ideal time. When the U.S. attorney general is able to say with a straight face that the right to habeas corpus is not guaranteed by the Constitution (as Alberto Gonzales told stunned U.S. senators last year), it is important to be reminded what can happen when prisons are beyond the reach of the rule of law. Mason’s documentary does so, without being preachy, didactic or self-congratulatory.

The film focuses on convicted felon Fred Arispe Cruz and his decade-long fight for freedom, which proved to be a catalyst for the complete overhaul of the Texas prison system. Growing up in an impoverished section of San Antonio in the 1940s and ’50s, Cruz got into legal trouble early in life, committing juvenile offenses before moving on to more serious crimes. In 1961, at age 21, he was convicted of armed robbery, given a 35-year sentence and shipped into the state’s infamous penal system. He witnessed and experienced countless instances of physical and mental abuse, much of it committed by “building tenders” — favored prisoners who imposed discipline on their fellow inmates as they saw fit.

A 1968 mug shot of Fred Cruz.

Uneducated but brilliant — prison officials took note of his high IQ upon his arrival — Cruz started scouring law books and petitioning judges in an attempt to convince them he had been unfairly convicted. Prison officials were not pleased, but Cruz didn’t feel the full force of their wrath until he started taking on other clients.

Defying regulations, he would write writs of habeas corpus for fellow inmates; in the writs, he detailed abusive practices at the prison. For his efforts, he would be beaten, sent into solitary confinement for long stretches, or both.

“In a way, Fred Cruz was a quintessential American,” Mason says. “He understood he was witnessing something that was wrong. He was smart enough to know that and tough enough to call them on it.

“Most people who had an impulse to challenge the system had it beaten out of them. He refused to let that happen. I think he drew inspiration from Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King. He read the paper religiously.”

One day in 1967, a news item caught Cruz’s eye. An idealistic East Coast lawyer had moved to Austin to work for the Legal Aid and Defender Society. The story said Frances Jalet, a 57-year-old mother of five grown children, chose Texas because she heard it was the state where poor defendants were least likely to get justice.

Cruz wrote her, she replied and soon the two were a team, petitioning courts to address a variety of grievances. Arguably their most important assertion: The regulation forbidding inmates from assisting one another on legal matters was unconstitutional. It took until 1971, but a federal judge finally agreed.

“That was his major victory,” Mason explains. “It was huge because, at the time, so many brutal and illegal things were going on within Texas prisons. Once he got that rule thrown out, it was possible for prisoners to begin challenging their conditions of confinement.”

That same year, another self-taught inmate, David Ruiz, filed a class-action civil rights complaint regarding conditions in the Texas prison system. That case finally went to trial in 1978; the inmates won the following year. For nearly three decades thereafter, the prison system remained under federal control.

Cruz walked out of prison in 1972 after Jalet successfully argued he was eligible for early release. Soon thereafter, to most everyone’s surprise, the 32-year-old married his 61-year-old attorney. Their union did not last. Cruz, who had shown amazing self-discipline in prison, resumed his former heroin habit, and Jalet divorced him after six years. He died of a drug overdose in 1987, at age 47.

“There are so many contradictions in this kind of history,” Mason says. “I didn’t want to present a romanticized portrait of two people who would become heroes in the eyes of the prisoners. The reality was more complex.”

As was the challenge of turning Cruz’s short life into a film. There are no audio or videotapes of him, or even many still photos. Realizing she needed him to be a palpable presence in the film, Mason culled Cruz’s diaries and letters (some of which had been sitting untouched in an attic for more than 30 years) and fashioned his writing into a narration. Through his writings and a voice-over actor, Cruz tells his own story. “The voice became the best way I could give the viewer a sense of his presence,” Mason explains.

Jalet, who died in 1994 after a long illness, is represented in the film by two of her children, who speak admiringly of her passion for justice. But the film never takes on a triumphant tone. Writ Writer is a story about beating the odds and making a difference, but its subtext is decidedly sobering. After all, this is the tale of an amazing man who only found his purpose in life when he was behind bars — and then lost it again upon his release.

Writ Writer also documents how easily a free society can discard its own fundamental principles. At one point, Cruz recalls being placed in solitary confinement — no bed, no mattress, meager meals and complete darkness — for a period of many weeks. Prison officials considered this just punishment. He had, he says, committed a horrible offense: “I was caught with a copy of the Constitution in my cell.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three tourists to Jamaica reports getting harassed; half of them are hassled to buy drugs. September/October 2014 new-big-one-4

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.