The Fred Cruz Story Part 1

By Jay Goodman

In this chapter I am going back in time, to 1967. A time that all of the Texas prisons looked more like slave plantations, than a prison system. While agriculture is usually a part of most prisons, I have yet to see anywhere who used field work to beat, whip, or actually work a man until he died. The atrocities that have taken place inside the Texas prison system hasn’t gone unnoticed from the rest of the country. Newspapers as far away as New York, have reported these abuses.

          Anyway, I have decided to go back in time to 1967, and tell a story of a young man named, Fred Cruz, and an attorney named, Frances Jalet. Many things amazed me about this story. For one, even though it’s 52 years ago a lot of the tactics they used back then are still going on to this very day. Even though this is a story of cruelty, hatefulness, and insanity, it will show everyone that the Texas prison system has always been run by madmen. Who’s only goal is to enslave every single man who enters. it’s doors.

          On the evening of November 9, 1967, Fred Cruz was in his sixth year of a fifteen-year robbery sentence, and starting yet another stint in the hole (isolation). Of the many punishments the Texas prison system doled out to inmates, solitary confinement was one of the most brutal on the body and soul. It wasn’t Cruz’s first time there, but it wasn’t something one got used to. The Ellis Unit, about fourteen miles from Huntsville in a boggy lowland area of East Texas, was known as the toughest prison in the system at that time, and there’ was no worse place to be in Ellis, than solitary. The cells darkness was so complete it made the eyes ache. On some occasion, Cruz, 27, was given a thin blanket and nothing else, no clothes, and no mattress, for the steel bunk. His toilet was a hole in the floor. He would receive only three slices of bread a day with a full meal twice a week, and he had shed multiple pounds from his already thin frame. After two weeks, an outer door to the cell would be opened, allowing in light from the hallway. This would be considered a “release” from solitary. Then the Warden or an officer would come by and assess ‘the sincerity of Cruz’s contrition. If he failed that yes-sir, no-sir boss encounter, the solid steel door would be shut, and the days of darkness would recommence. Cruz’s ability to maintain his composure through, interminable silence and darkness was better than that of many other inmates, but still uneven. Sometimes a panic would rise in his chest, his heart would pound, and he couldn’t catch his breath. Some days he simply wished for death. Cruz had been through a lot in his lifetime, abandoned by his father, he came of age in the late 50’s, and early 60’s in segregated Mexican-American barrios on the West Side of San Antonio. Cruz was nineteen when his older brother Frank, had been shot dead by the police during a failed holdup. So he developed an emotional steelness during his childhood, but it wasn’t until he started this fifteen year sentence that he began to develop an intellectual and spiritual strength. He took to reading difficult text in philosophy and legal theory. He learned about yoga, and Eastern religions and started a correspondence with a Buddhist priest in San Francisco. He read Joseph Campbell’s, “The Masks of God” and Rammurti Mishra’s,”Fundamentals of Yoga”. He was drawn to the Buddhist idea, that peace of mind came not from the external world, but from personal insights into truth and reality. The “infraction” that had gotten him thrown into solitary on that November day had been stupid and petty. As Cruz’s squad prepared for the short journey to the cane field, a friend had offered him a seat on the work wagon.

          A prison guard, Officer Graham, told Cruz to get on a different wagon. Which he promptly did, although he couldn’t help making an offhand comment. “Personally”, he said, “I’m not particular about which trailer I go to work on”. Cruz’s response might have sounded innocuous to anyone not schooled in the code of prison obedience and resistance. But, any prisoner who heard the comment certainly knew it was a brazen challenge to the guard’s authority. The guard yelled at Cruz, “You aren’t going to run anything while you are working under met” That evening, after a full day of cutting cane, and being subjected to the open-air-strip search that was required after prisoners used any tool. Cruz was called into the prison Major’s office, where he found almost the entire prison hierarchy waiting for him, including Graham, and Assistant Warden McKaskle. “What’s your trouble?” Began one of the Captain’s. “I don’t know sir?”, said Cruz. “That’s what I’m here to find out.” Graham told his story about Cruz getting on the wrong wagon. “I told him to get off my trailer, and he opened his mouth to me.” Captain Ramsey announced the penalty. “That will be one gallon of peanuts.” Shelling peanuts was a low end of punishment scale back then, but nevertheless a nasty, mind-numbing task that would keep Cruz up half the night and leave his fingers blistered and raw. “Just a minute,” said Cruz. “Don’t I get to say anything at all?” “Sure”, said McKaskle. “You got anything you want to say?” Cruz could of let it go right there, and just taken the punishment. He knew if he objected, things would only get worse. So he launched into his defense, speaking slowly and looking his accusers in the eye. Many who guarded or served time with him would remember his preternatural calm. He had a sort of inner strength that could unnerve those in charge. Cruz asked the men to tell him exactly what prison regulation he had broken. “I’m entitled, under your rules, to a fair hearing,” he told the group. “I wish to appeal the decision of this committee to the prison board.” “Very well, “said McKaskle. “You may do that when you are released from solitary.” And this is one of the reasons I decided to go back in time and tell Cruz’s story.

          Remember, this is in 1967, and even though the Texas prison system has rules and regulations, they have to abide by, or do they? From those days, until now in the 21st century, the wardens, major’s captains, do whatever they want. Yes, the Texas department of Criminal Justice has a policy that everyone who works here are supposed to follow, but that is one of the biggest problems we have, none of the staff does. And because of that, the prisoners get abused in every way possible. Remember, Cruz said, he wished to appeal the decision, and asked, what prison regulation he’d broken? And pointed out that under their rules he is entitled to a fair hearing. There is of course no rules or regulations inside the Texas prison system. Yes, on paper they have it, only to make it look like they are fair. But, in reality to this very day, they write fake disciplinary cases, lie, abuse, and pretty much do whatever they want. Many of the other offenses chronicled in Cruz’s disciplinary file were just as petty. Cruz at that time had only recently been transferred to Ellis from another prison, when he was cited for, “not keeping up with his squad,” while working the cotton fields. For that, he lost ninety days of “good time”. To this very day the guards write disciplinary cases like this. Remember, that working out in the fields is hard work, not every man can handle the long hours in the Texas heat. So, not everyone can keep up with the rest of the squad. Remember, they aren’t saying I won’t work, certain people are just not strong enough to keep up. And for that you will receive a disciplinary case and be put in isolation. Or like in Cruz’s case, lost good time, and have to stay in prison longer. Sound crazy? Well that tactic is still being used. Except now, they will punish a whole squad, hoping that the rest of the men will beat this prisoner.

          On another occasion, while picking cotton, Cruz demanded a drink of water. For that, he received a week in solitary. Then, there was the time his punishment entailed standing for days at a time on a two-by-six plank, turned sideways. For the offense of playing with an armadillo. Cruz always seemed to get the harshest possible punishment. But, with each encounter, he learned a little more about the nature of the Texas prison system.

          Cruz also during this dedicated himself to studying law. He’d begun reading textbooks, as well as documents, like Supreme Court opinions, The Bill of Rights, and The Constitution. And although he had no illusions of fairness inside the walls of Texas prisons, he came to understand, and long for, the platonic idea of justice. He almost worshipped it. Cruz became known among his fellow inmates as someone who understood the legal system. Inside the Texas prisons to this very day, people like Cruz are called, “Writ Writers.”        

          Now remember this story happened 52 years ago, in 1967. Our country was still sure enough changing and going through a lot at that time. But, our rights as an American Citizen were set in stone. Well of course, I’m speaking about Texas. To this day, they won’t follow any law, state or federal. And as I sit with my friend, Bernal, who is also a, “Writ Writer”, I ask him all the time. What’s it going to take for our federal government to step in and take over? Our federal government spends millions of dollars chasing Cartel members and gangsters, right here in our own country. But, the biggest organized crime family exist right here, and is known as, “The Texas Department of Criminal Justice”. And they flip you the finger every single day. For some reason they haven’t stepped in and put these criminals where they need to be, in here with us.

          This is where the story begins. Unfortunately, in Cruz’s day helping other prisoners with legal issues, or simply keeping legal books or documents in his cell was strictly forbidden. Even talking to another prisoner about the law was a violation, and could be punished with weeks in the hole. So much for, “freedom of speech”. Cruz did several stints in isolation for possessing or sharing legal information. With his new understanding of the law he would one day become a threat to some of the most powerful men in the prison system, the officers, and the wardens, and George Beto, the Director of the Texas prisons.

          As unlikely as it would have seemed as Fred Cruz sat in solitary in the fall of 1967, he would see to it that many of those men’s careers ended in disgrace. But he wouldn’t do it alone. About this time, a woman named, Frances Jalet, moved to Austin, Texas, to begin a new life working in the field of poverty law. A few days after she got to town, the Austin American-Statesman ran a story on her. That she had moved from the East Coast to Texas to help low income plaintiffs. The next week, she received a letter from a prisoner named, Fred Cruz. He had read the article, he said, and wondered if she could help him with his case. Even though she came to Texas to work for a place in Austin, She decided to help Cruz on her own free time. She called the Texas prison system, and spoke to the Director George Beto, to schedule a visit. A couple of weeks later in late October, she drove the 160 miles to meet Cruz. Their first visit went well. She told him she could advise him and help type up his briefs. Their conversation turned to other issues. They talked about their families and faith. They also talked about different books, and about the law. By the time the visit ended, they both felt a deep respect for each other. As she left, and Cruz went back to his cell. The Director, George Beto, and the warden of the Ellis Unit were waiting. During their first meeting, Beto felt obliged to warn Jalet, that inmates often sought out to con outsiders. He told her, she should be particularly wary of Fred Cruz. Who was frequently in trouble for being a “Writ Writer”, and helping other prisoners out with their legal work. Beto saw him as crafty, always trying to “out-snicker” him. He didn’t want Jalet to be taken advantage of, by such a “non-conformist”. “Is being a nonconformist a bad thing?”, asked Jalet, who was of course something of one herself.

          As I sit here today, 52 years later in time and tell Fred Cruz’s story. I think this man Fred Cruz, was a trouble maker, because he tried to help people. But to this very day, that is still how they view inmates in prison that help each other with their legal issues. You see, the director knew that Fred Cruz, understood the law, and that Cruz studied the federal law and knew prison policy. Writ Writers, are hated to this day, not because we are trouble makers, but because we know the truth. We help others in here to understand it.

          As I write the next chapter about Cruz and Jalet, you’ll see how the Director Beto, and the warden conspire to make life for Cruz a living hell, and to ruin the life of Frances Jalet. Not because they were doing anything wrong, but because together they would expose the brutality of the Texas prisons.

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