Independent Lens : Writ Writer (2008)

Genres - History  |   Sub-Genres - Biography, Law & Crime, Social History  |   Run Time - 57 min.  |   Countries - United States   |  
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An outwardly ordinary criminal proves himself to be a truly exceptional convict when, after being handed a fifty year prison sentence and finding himself unable to afford a lawyer, he studied law from his cell and filed his own appeal pro se. The year was 1960, and Fred Cruz was a Mexican-American from racially segregated San Antonio. Arrested for a robbery he denied committing, convicted of the crime, and sent to a state prison farm to pick cotton, the inmate with only an eighth grade education read every law book he could get his hands on in order to file his own appeal. The resulting legal battle would secure the constitutional rights of Texas inmates for decades to come, but his journey was a grueling one. After filing lawsuits against the prison system due to the relentless field labor, harsh corporal punishments, and arbitrary disciplinary hearings experienced by himself and his fellow prisoners, Cruz was branded an agitator and transferred to the maximum security Ellis Unit, also known as the "Alcatraz of Texas." The punishment he endured there was nearly unbearable: not only was Cruz subjected to extended periods in solitary confinement, but he was forced to get by on a threadbare diet of bread and water. Incredibly, despite the isolation and confiscation of his legal papers, Cruz was still able to assist his fellow prisoners with their own lawsuits - the situation coming to blows when, in 1968, a Muslim inmate claiming civil rights violations was caught with legal papers prepared by Cruz. In this documentary, the wardens, convicts, and former prisoners who were closes to Cruz during this period offer their impressions of the man who took his fate into his own hands while standing up for the rights of prisoners everywhere.