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 the constitutional rights of Texas prisoners.
By most measures, Cruz was an ordinary criminal serving a 50-year sentence for robbery. But in prison he studied law in order to file an appeal. Before long he began to file lawsuits against the prison system over the routine harsh field labor, brutal corporal punishment, and arbitrary disciplinary hearings. Cruz 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.