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Historic prison activist David Ruiz dies

Published Nov 27, 2005 7:54 PM

David Ruiz, the jailhouse lawyer whose historic 1972 lawsuit forced the Texas prison system into the 20th century, died on Nov. 12. He was 63 years old and had just been visited by his wife and three children at the prison hospital in Galveston, Texas. They were allowed to see him for only one hour. After they were forced to leave, Ruiz died.

David Ruiz in 1978.

News of Ruiz’ death was reported in almost 100 newspapers around the country, all saying he had died of natural causes. That is a lie. He died of medical neglect.

David Ruiz is known and revered by all those in prison in Texas and all who have done time. His name still gives courage to those fighting the injustices of the system some 25 years after Federal Judge William Wayne Justice declared the Texas prison system unconstitutional.

David wrote his civil rights complaint on toilet paper in 1972. Years later it was combined with six other lawsuits into what became a class action on behalf of all Texas prisoners—Ruiz vs. Estelle.

During the 1970s the system offered David his freedom if he would just drop his lawsuit. He refused.

The trial began in October 1978. One hundred and ten prisoners were called to testify about the lack of medical care, overcrowding, lack of legal access and the guards’ brutality. Thousands of prisoners held a work stoppage in solidarity with those testifying and the strike spread to almost all of the prison units.

The trial ended one year later in 1979. In 1980 the judge ruled in favor of Ruiz and the prisoners. After what was then the longest civil trial in U.S. jurisprudence history, Texas was ordered to make sweeping changes in its prisons.

Change was not made willingly and the federal government had to take over the prison system to force compliance. In 2002, the federal court finally released the system back to state control.

Killed by medical neglect

The prison system discovered he had cancer in 2002 but did not tell him until 2005 and never treated the illness, he said. He had hepatitis C that he said he got from unsanitary prison conditions at the Coffield Unit. After filing writs, grievances and writing many letters, he received minimal and irregular treatment for six months only. He also was never treated for his gallstones, cataracts on both eyes, a hiatal hernia and injuries to both knees, both ankles and his back.

Dr. Kathryn Kendall, a writing professor and friend who corresponded with David, told Workers World that a doctor had told David in 2004 that he had, at most, five years to live. David told Kendall, “I only hope that I’ll be able to accomplish certain things I desire on behalf of all prisoners who have experienced oppression, sadness, loneliness and pain while being confined. ”

David was one of 13 children born to migrant farmworkers. He grew up in the Chicano neighborhood of East Austin. David and his wife, Marie, have three children that David dearly loved: Eva, David and Everett. All his children and grandchildren are proud of their father/grandfather and his contributions to bettering the lives of prisoners.

Eva said, “To me, because of his lawsuit, he has made history. He felt that everyone should be treated humanely, even though they made a mistake. To me, my dad gave his life for the prisoners. “

David was also a poet and an artist. Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata was a favorite subject in his art, as well as Native people and symbols. He was very proud of his Chicano and Native heritage.

While David was out of prison during the early 1980s, he continued his activism, traveling to Detroit for the founding conference of the All Peoples Congress and attending meetings and rallies around Texas.

After he was returned to prison in 1984, he spent the last 21 years isolated in administrative segregation. He was as hated by the prison system as he was loved by its captives. But the system could never break David, no matter what the torture, no matter the consequences.

Dr. Kendall said that Ruiz had three missions that kept him going the last year of his life: 1) his campaign for adequate health care for Texas prisoners; 2) his campaign for programs for young people just getting into trouble with the law; and 3) his desire to alert the public to the abuse, torture and illegal detention of immigrants in Texas prisons.

No one in Texas prisons does easy time, but David’s was particularly cruel. The medical neglect killed him and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is responsible for his slow and painful death.

David was a special person who will live forever in the hearts and in the history of so many: the Chicano community he loved, the prisoners he fought for, the activists he inspired, the organizers he worked with, and the legal writ writers he educated. David always had a quick smile for his friends and a sharp pen for his enemies. David will be sorely missed but never forgotten.

The hundreds who attended his rosary, his funeral and his burial know that David made history for his people and they love him for that. Maria Elena Rodriguez, a former member of the Prisoners Solidarity Committee and a friend of David, told mourners at the rosary to contact government officials about the deliberate death of Ruiz.

Not many prisoners have a federal judge who presided over one of their lawsuits against the prison system attend their funeral. Judge William Wayne Justice, who presided over David’s landmark lawsuit, is now 86 years old. He sat quietly in Cristo Rey church for the funeral and afterward told ex-prisoner Chuck Hurt that he has a tremendous respect for David.

David’s rosary and funeral both ended with an old country song sung in Spanish, “One Day at a Time,” which is how David did his time, kept his sanity and his perseverance.

David and his extraordinary courage will always be with us in spirit—on the picket line, in the law libraries, at the rallies, in the jail cell and wherever oppressed people are fighting for change, for revolution, to bring this racist system down.

As a leader of the Prisoners Solidarity Committee, Rubac had organized support for the prisoners during the 1978-79 trial. The Ruiz family invited her
to give a eulogy for David.