Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Love Story that Upended the Texas Prison System

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Ethan Watters writes in Texas Monthly:


On November 9, 1967, Fred Cruz was in his sixth year of a fifteen-year robbery sentence and starting yet another stint in the hole. Of the many punishments the Texas prison system doled out to inmates, solitary confinement was one of the most brutal on the body and the soul. It wasn’t Cruz’s first time there, but it wasn’t something one got used to. The Ellis Unit, about fourteen miles north of Huntsville in a boggy lowland area of East Texas, was known as the toughest prison in the system, and there was no worse place to be in Ellis than solitary.

The cell’s darkness was so complete it made the eyes ache. On some occasions, Cruz 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’d receive only three slices of bread a day with a full meal twice a week, and 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 encounter, the solid steel door would be shut again 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.

But if he got his mind right, he could keep it together. Cruz’s upbringing had made him tough. Abandoned by his father, he came of age in the late fifties and early sixties in the segregated Mexican-American barrios on the West Side of San Antonio. It was a place where you joined a gang or risked becoming a victim. He ran with the Mirasoles and dressed in street pachuco style: zoot suits with pleated pants and suspenders. Members of his family sold drugs, and run-ins with the law were a regular occurrence. Cruz was nineteen and serving a short stint for selling marijuana when he learned that his older brother Frank had been shot dead by the police during a failed hold-up.

From that childhood grew an emotional steeliness, but it wasn’t until he started this fifteen-year stint in 1961 for robbery that he began to develop an intellectual and a spiritual strength. He took to reading difficult texts in philosophy and legal theory. He learned about yoga and Eastern religions, and started a correspondence with a Buddhist priest in San Francisco. It was the sixties, and though he was in prison, Cruz was aware of the cultural awakenings happening in the world around him. 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.


That morning’s “infraction” had been stupid and petty. As Cruz’s squad prepared for the short journey to the cane fields, a friend had offered him a seat on a 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, in his quiet but steady cadence, “I’m not particular about which trailer I go to work in.”

Cruz’s response might have sounded innocuous to anyone not schooled in the subtextual game of prison obedience and resistance. But any prisoner who heard the comment certainly knew it was a brazen challenge to the guard’s authority.

“You’re not going to take over my squad,” Officer Graham yelled at Cruz. “You aren’t going to run anything while you are working under me!”

That evening, after a full day of cutting cane and the open-air strip search that was required after prisoners used any tools, Cruz was called into the major’s office, where he found almost the entire prison hierarchy waiting for him, including Officer Graham and Assistant Warden McKaskle.

“What’s your trouble?” began one of the captains.

“I don’t know, sir,” said Cruz. “That’s what I’m here to find out.”

“Well, you’re sure fixing to find out right now,” said the captain. Then, Officer Graham told his story about Cruz getting on the wrong wagon. Cruz, he said, had been “running his head with them others. 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 at the low end of the punishment scale, 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,” McKaskle said. “You got anything you want to say?”

He could have let it go right there and just taken the punishment. He knew that if he objected things would only get worse. But it wasn’t in Cruz’s character to let things go, and he bridled at arbitrary rules. 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. Even when being interrogated or brutally beaten, he stared out at the world as if nothing could surprise him, as if his true self had receded deep inside to watch events unfold from a distance. Cruz was only 27, but he had the sort of inner strength that could unnerve those charged with keeping him in line.

Cruz asked the men to tell him exactly what prison regulation he’d broken. Was there a rule about which work wagon he rode on or whom he sat next to? “I’m entitled, under your rules, to a fair hearing,” he told the group. “I’m refusing to go along with the recommendation at this time. 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 so another confrontation with authority came to a close. A page was added to Cruz’s folder of offense reports, a file that was already thick enough to make a thump when dropped on the warden’s desk. The new entry read: “Insubordination—refused peanuts.”

Many of the other offenses chronicled in that disciplinary file were just as petty. Cruz had only recently been transferred to Ellis from another prison when he drifted away from his squad’s cotton row. For that, he had lost ninety days of “good time.” (Accruing good time allowed prisoners to take as many as two days off their sentences for every day they kept their noses clean. But looking at a guard sideways could be enough to wipe those “good time” days away.) On another occasion, while picking cotton, Cruz had asked a guard for water with the words “no water, no work.” For that he received a week in solitary. Then there was the time he received the punishment of standing on a rail, which meant standing for days at a time on a six-by-two plank turned sideways. The offense that day: “inmate started chasing an armadillo.”

The infractions went on and on: “unsatisfactory work” … “creating a disturbance” … “impudence” … “refusal to work” … “disobeying a direct order” … “disrespectful attitude” … “insolence” … “insubordination” … “insubordination.”

Cruz always lost, but with each encounter he learned a little more about the nature of the Texas Department of Corrections. He learned it the same way someone can learn a great deal about the nature of a grizzly by poking it with a stick.

Finding the Law

Cruz’s record up to that point confirmed the assessments most prison officials had made when he entered the system in 1961, after an arrest and conviction for the aggravated robbery of an ice house in San Antonio. He’d been described as an eighth-grade dropout and a “hardened incorrigible” with an IQ of 87, one who was an “extremely poor prospect” for rehabilitation.

A clinical psychologist named William Gates, who interviewed Cruz, was the only one who saw something different. To his eyes, Cruz was “intellectually bright” as well as “suspicious, and prone to be hostile to authority.” In a report to the warden, Gates warned that Cruz had “leadership potential,” and that if the prison authorities failed to keep him in line he would “most certainly be a disturbing influence.”

Gates should have been a fortune teller, because it wasn’t just dumb stuff like chasing armadillos or talking back to low-level turnkeys that would get Cruz in trouble. When not working in the fields, Cruz dedicated himself to studying law. Cut off from the siren calls of heroin, marijuana, and alcohol, 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 ideal of justice. He almost worshiped it.

Cruz’s early attempts at writing court filings mostly focused on appealing his own case on the grounds of inadequate representation. He had always denied that he’d robbed the ice house and claimed his court-appointed lawyer had been so disengaged that he failed to call an alibi witness. And while lower courts routinely dismissed Cruz’s pleadings, Cruz became known among his fellow inmates as someone who understood the legal system. They called him a “writ writer” and sought him out for help with their own appeals and filings.

Unfortunately, helping other prisoners with legal issues, or keeping legal books or documents in one’s cell, was strictly against the rules. Even talking to another prisoner about the law was a violation and could be punished with weeks of hunger and darkness in the hole. Cruz did several stints in solitary for possessing or sharing contraband books and documents—including Cochran’s Law Lexicon, 4th EditionCasebook on Criminal Procedures in the Courts of Texas; and The Constitution of the United States of America.

So Cruz lost good time: first weeks, then months, then years. But the punishments wouldn’t stop him. Using his growing legal acumen, he would become the most dangerous man in the cloistered and labyrinthine Texas prison system—a danger not to the other prisoners but to those with real power: the officers and the wardens, and George Beto, the director of the Texas Department of Corrections. As unlikely as it would have seemed as Fred Cruz sat in solitary in the winter of 1967, he would see to it that many of those men’s careers ended in disgrace. The effort would fundamentally alter prison systems across the country.

But he wouldn’t do it alone.


By all reasonable imaginings, Frances Jalet and Fred Cruz should never have met.

Jalet was born in Boston, and had been among the first cohorts of women to graduate from Columbia Law School, in 1937, but, like many educated women of that era, she found it difficult to put that education to use. She’d gotten married in 1935 and eventually moved to Darien, Connecticut, where the only jobs she could find were teaching and typing. She and her husband had five children, and Frances took charge of raising them. She went to church, she sang in the choir, she volunteered for good causes.

Then, while Jalet’s husband was flying a friend’s private plane on a trip to Chicago, his flight went down; he barely survived the crash. He came home irrevocably changed by the serious head injury he had sustained. He drank heavily and was unpredictable and angry. At one point he became so out of control he had to be hauled off in a straitjacket.

For several years, Jalet tried to keep the marriage going, but by 1954 it was over. Divorced, she  moved with her kids to Washington, D.C. for a job with the American Association of University Women. That was one of a series of moves and short-term positions that lasted only a year or two. By the summer of 1959, she had finally found a job that stuck—as a staff attorney on the New York Law Revision Commission in Ithaca, New York. She held that position for eight years, until the last of her children was out of the house.

Jalet longed to be a part of the burgeoning civil rights movements, and saw this moment in time as her opportunity. “I am now without home ties,” she wrote. “My children are grown and need me less. My material needs are small. I want simply to spend all the rest of the time that might be mine giving assistance to those who need it.”

She applied for and was awarded a Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship. It was the first year of the program, which was funded by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity to attract lawyers from top law schools into the field of poverty law. The honor was mostly reserved for attorneys just starting out in their careers, and Jalet’s age made her stand out. After six weeks of intensive training, the fifty “Reggies” were scattered to poverty law centers across the country with the guarantee of a modest stipend from the federal government. Jalet asked where her services were most needed. The answer: Texas.

So, late in the summer of 1967, she packed her car and set out on the long drive to Austin. After a difficult marriage and two decades of motherhood, she was suddenly off on a new adventure. She drove west and south, through the August heat and thunderstorms. She was 56 years old.

A few days after she got to town, the Austin American-Statesman ran a short profile of this peculiar woman who had moved from the East Coast to Texas to help low-income plaintiffs. The writer of the story called her “Portia for the Poor,” after the heroine in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice—a rich heiress who dresses up as a man and fools everyone into believing she is a competent lawyer.

The next week, she received a letter from a prisoner named Fred Cruz. He’d read the article, he said, and wondered if she could help him with his case. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

12 October 2018 at 11:48 am

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