The Fred Cruz Story: Part 3

A Small Hard Step Forward

By Jay Goodman

        As I begin chapter three, it would seem that Cruz and his attorney were finally getting a great opportunity, to not only expose the director of the Texas prison system, and the wardens. I know they must have both seen hope for big changes throughout all of the prisons in Texas.

        On December 15, 1969, the case of, Novak V. Beto, came to trial in Houston, The Judge, Woodrow Seals, a World War II Airforce veteran, and a democrat, who had been a campaign manager for John F. Kennedy, had been appointed in 1966, by Lyndon B. Johnson, and he did not have a long track record, and given the possibility of other good ol’ boy judges in Texas courts, it seemed a lucky break, to get him. Cruz wore a suit and sat next to Jalet, at the counsel table. When the trial began, Jalet and Turner, called their first witness, Novak. He described the brutality and mental anguish of solitary. He told the judge that over a three-month period in the previous year, he had spent more than 78 days in solitary, in four different stints. The starvation and isolation in darkness had pushed him beyond his mental limits. In despair, he said, he managed to saw through one of his achilleas tendons-hoping he’d get moved to the hospital unit. Novak testified, that he had asked Cruz for help, in filing legal papers. The penalties became even more severe when he began to meet with Jalet. When Cruz took the stand, Judge Seals did the interrogating. If prison officials couldn’t use solitary, the judge wanted to know, what punishment would be the most effective in reprimanding a prisoner who violated prison regulations? “How about whipping?” Seals asked. “Would that deter people from violating the regulations in prison, if you tied them to a stake in the prison yard, and whipped them -not break any bones, not whipped them unconscious, but whip them so that they know they’ve had a whipping?” Cruz, who had spent hundreds of hours thinking, and writing about the nature of such punishments, gathered his thoughts. “When you use physical force on a man,” Cruz said, “the only thing you do is breed hostility.” Seals considered this answer unsatisfactory. “Suppose though, you have a prisoner who is not very smart, and he might be a little emotionally disturbed,” he said, in a likely reference to Novak. “Now, don’t you think, that he should be punished so he will learn that he can’t keep doing what he is doing?” “I believe those people should be helped through a psychiatrist, and counseling, so that they would be able to understand.” Cruz said. “If they are not responsible for their actions, I don’t believe that they should be punished.” Seals asked, “Is there any situation when punishment does help a prisoner when he violates a regulation?” Cruz admitted, that sometimes a prisoner might need to be isolated, if he were violent. But, he suggested that education and mediation would be better at helping prisoners follow the rules, and understand right from wrong. “Suppose it doesn’t help?”, the judge said. “I don’t have the expertise on that, your honor”, Cruz said. “I can just say from my experience, and the effect this punishment has had on me.” “What has it done to you?” Seals asked. “For one thing,” Cruz began, “it has made me more resolute in trying to enjoin some of these unreasonable regulations that I feel are wrongs” Seals wasn’t having any of this. “The law did not give you the power to make the regulations, see?” Seals said. “You are just an uneducated young man, with an eighth-grade education. The law puts power to regulate the prison in experts’ hands, like Dr. Beto. Why don’t you recognize that that’s what the people of Texas want you to do, and obey its regulations, even though you disagree with them?” If Seals thought he could browbeat Cruz into submission, he was wrong. “I recognize the fact, that he does have a broad discretion in promulgating these rules and regulations,” Cruz said. “But I also recognize the fact that he could not enforce a rule and regulation, that is in contradiction of federal law. He is under the obligation of law, just like I am... He also has to obey the law and he also has to protect my rights, in support of regulations that (punish) me for exercising constitutional rights.”  Because Beto had not provided that protection, Cruz said. “I feel I have a moral duty to resist it, and that’s what I have been doing.” Beto, took the stand at the end of the week-long trial.

        As he had done throughout the week, Seals took over the questioning. “Is there any particular reason why you do not want Fred Cruz, assisting other prisoners in the preparation of writs?” Seals asked Beto. “He could develop an unconscionable control over other inmates, by setting himself up as a lawyer,” Beto told the court. “There are two types of prisons; those the convicts run, and those the administrations run. I live in mortal fear of a convict-run ‘prison.” Of course, what Beto really meant was, he didn’t want a prison run by convicts who were not in his control. Cellblocks across Texas were, already run by the “Turn Keys”.

        Immediately after the close of the trial, just five days before Christmas. The President of Texas Southern University, told the President of the Law School, that he’d have to fire Jalet, or the University would lose funding. “I am deeply discouraged,” Jalet wrote. “Dr. Beto has almost succeeded in running me out of the state.” Cruz, meanwhile, was temporarily sent to the Wynne Unit, where he was placed in isolation, and denied all privileges.

        In the spring of 1970, while still awaiting the outcome of the trial, Cruz managed to secure a pen, and using his ration of toilet paper, wrote a class action lawsuit, against the state of Texas. Asserting that the prison system had punished him for trying to exercise his religious beliefs. Cruz and Jalet now had another lawsuit in the works.

        In October, Seals’ ruling came down. Cruz and Novak lost. Seals ruled that prisoners had no need to help each other with legal matters, because the year before, the Texas prison system had hired an attorney, to provide assistance - one attorney for 14,000 inmates. As for solitary being cruel and unusual punishment, Seals wrote the prison officials should have great leeway in choosing disciplinary measures, “lest the judicial stranglehold sabotage the hands-off” doctrine. Jalet went to work appealing the losses, but they were devastating blows to her clients. Novak, his body long racked with chronic health problems, seemed to give up. He couldn’t speak coherently; his pulse was rapid and irregular. Alvin Slaton, another of Jalet’s clients, who had trained as a nurse prior to prison, took charge of his care. When Novak started spitting up bright-red blood, Slaton begged guards to take him to the hospital. He was told a doctor would come around soon. But never came.

        By December 14, Novak was in agony. He couldn’t defecate or keep food down. The guards refused to give Novak anything for his pain. A prison psychiatrist came by on his rounds and was appalled by Novak’s condition. He got on the phone, “I’m not bullshitting, get an ambulance out here right now!” On Christmas Eve, Jalet wrote to Novak, telling him, she would visit soon. Novak would never read the letter. He died the day after Christmas.

        By 1971, Cruz and Jalet had little to show for their three-year partnership. Jalet knew that setbacks, and slow progress, were to be expected in civil rights work. She also knew each time she managed to get a representative from the Texas prison to answer questions in a deposition, or on the stand, she was creating a record of their lies and obfuscations. That testimony would eventually be their undoing. Warden McAdams was transferred from Ellis to another prison. But, the new one, Robert Cousins, was just as bad.

        In mid-November 1971, Cruz was pulled out of solitary and was told he was being transferred. He was put in a car with Warden Cousins, and driven through Ellis gates. After a few miles, they stopped on the side of the road, where Beto sat waiting in another car. Cousins got out, walked over, spoke with the director, then got back into his car. “Do you know where you are going?” Cousins asked Cruz. “I’m going in the right direction. Because, I’m getting away from Ellis.” Cruz wasn’t the only one being transferred that day. The pressure on inmates to disavow Jalet had left herewith about half of her clients. The two dozen who stayed loyal, were being shipped to the Wynne Unit, on the outskirt of Huntsville. And guess who the Warden was waiting for everyone? None other than McAdams himself. Jalet’s two dozen clients were put together on the fourth tier of B-wing, and all were designated “the eight hoe work squad”. They were isolated from the rest of the inmates, even eating at different times. The prison doctors tried to prescribe powerful thing but a hard-working lawyer trying to help her clients. Barring her from prison and punishing her clients had been unconscionable and wholly self-serving an attempt to protect an institution that had become a “law unto itself.”

        The defeat was public humiliation for Beto. A month after Bue dismissed the lawsuits against Jalet, Beto retired as head of the Texas prisons. Worse still for Beto, Jalet’s countersuit against him, for barring her from her clients, was still pending. Bue, who would hear the case, was now wise, to what was going on in the Texas prisons. Beto’s resignation, couldn’t shake Jalet and Cruz from their pursuit of justice. Once again before Judge Bue, Jalet and the eight hoe squad, won their case against Beto. Never before had Texas prisoners won a personal lawsuit against the head of the Department of Corrections. “It is clear”, Bue said, while handing down his ruling, “that public and legal scrutiny of the prison system is underway in this country.”

        The legal challenge to the Texas prison system didn’t end with Beto’s disgrace. The lawsuits that Cruz and Jalet, and the eight hoe squad began, would’ grow into a legal case that would shake the Texas prison system to the core. David Ruiz, the street fighter of the eight hoe squad, would become the lead plaintiff in a massive class action suit that would take years to be litigated. William Bennett Turner, who had helped Jalet in one of her earlier battles with the Texas prison system, took over as lead lawyer.

        In December of 1980, after a trial that heard from 349 witnesses and collected 1,530 exhibits as evidence, a Federal Judge (appropriately named, William Justice) declared that the Texas prison system was operating in a fundamentally unconstitutional manner. In a broad ruling, be highlighted it’s many failings, including the brutality suffered by prisoners, the absence of due process for punishments, and the lack of prisoner access to courts-the very issues Jalet and Cruz were the first to take up in court.

        Another bit of history was made along the way. On March 20, 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Cruz’s freedom of religion lawsuit. The complaint Cruz had written on toilet paper while in solitary.

        Now here I sit in my cell 52 years later in time. Five decades have passed. While everything I’ve studied and read on Frances Jalet, Fred Cruz, and David Ruiz, one would think the Texas prison system is a better place. But I’m here to say, that to this very day they’ll starve us, deny us our constitutional rights, set us up with drugs and weapons, write false disciplinary reports, let us cook to death in our cells. We are supposed to be allowed to go to respite 24 hours a day to cool off, but they deny us that every day. They’ll ship us from prison to prison for using the Grievance system, or the courts to expose them for their wrongdoings. They’ll rape us, beat us, falsify state or federal documentation, to cover up their illegal activity, and if necessary, they’ll kill us. I truly believe that once my book comes out, and they see what all I’ve written they will either ship me to a bad prison, so I’ll be beaten, or they are going to kill me. As I have said, over and over. Nothing has changed since 1967, only their tactics.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez