Film examines flaws in prison system
Published: Monday, February 20, 2012
Updated: Monday, February 20, 2012 12:02
"Like many who are in prisons or work in them, we forget that we are all human beings."
This is the message that students, faculty and a host of other visitors walked away with after viewing the PBS Independent Lens film "Writ Writer" last Thursday in the Congress Lounge.
The film, presented in a free screening by The Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation, explores the life Fred Cruz, a Mexican American criminal turned prison rights activist. The film also looks at a mid-20th century Texas prison that did little, if anything, to rehabilitate its inmates.
Convicted in 1961 of robbery and assault and sentenced to 50 years in prison, Cruz, who couldn't afford a lawyer, began studying law to appeal of his conviction. Soon, he became known as a "writ writer," providing writs of Habeas corpus and filing lawsuits on behalf of other inmates. Those lawsuits were due to harsh field labor, brutal corporal punishments and arbitrary disciplinary hearings among other things.
Cruz was labeled as an agitator and was viewed as dangerous because he threatened the absolute control that wardens, like C.L. McAdams, had. The film argues that that control made them more akin to modern slave systems than correctional facilities.
After 18 years of turmoil and abuse, Cruz's efforts led to a landmark decision in Ruiz v. Estelle. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the conditions of imprisonment within the Texas Department of Corrections prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the United States Constitution.
"It was very informative," said sophomore criminal justice major Pierre Enwia. "The fact that the general public isn't educated on the conditions our prisoners lived in is quite sad."
The screening was followed by reactions from former inmates Gregory Koger, Simon Gutierrez and Brian Nelson, as well as Uptown People's Law Center legal director Allan Mills.
"It doesn't just terrorize people broadly," said Koger of solitary confinement and other disciplinary measures imposed on Cruz and the fellow prisoners he stood behind. "It puts a chill on people challenging the status quo."
Additionally, the former prisoners also shared some of their horrific experiences in prison and personal trials within the criminal justice system.
"I caught a case for somebody that stabbed me," said Nelson, who now works as a paralegal at the Uptown People's Law Center after spending 28 years in prison. "He stabbed me six times, I stabbed him once."
Nelson says if he had trusted his lawyer, he may have had 10 years added to his sentence for the incident. Instead, after educating and representing himself, he only ended up with two.
Koger, Gutierrez, Mills and Nelson answered questions about their various experiences, coping with such long prison sentences as well as life after prison. They concluded by offering an uncommon way to think about prison inmates.
"People do bad things, I'm not disagreeing with that," Koger said. "However, you have to look at the broad socioeconomic conditions that lead people to do the things that they do. I just fundamentally disagree with the proposition that the inherent problem here is with the people. People have tremendous potential to change – three of us on this panel are representatives of that."
After the discussion, Enwia elaborated further about the legal system.
"It's inspiring to see how they want to help other prisoners and change our system," Enwia said. "It inspires people like me in school to want to keep on fighting for people like this who have been served so badly."