David Ruiz, Ex-Con and Prison Reform Activist

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Prison reform activist David Ruiz died recently at age 63. Ben Philpott of member station KUT in Austin, Texas, has a remembrance of Ruiz, who went to prison multiple times for aggravated robbery but spent his years in prison educating himself and advocating prison reform.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Today in Austin, Texas, was the funeral of 63-year-old David Ruiz. Ruiz spent most of his adult life in prison where he worked tirelessly for the rights of inmates. From member station KUT in Austin, Ben Philpott has this remembrance.

BEN PHILPOTT reporting:

Family pictures fill the walls at David Ruiz's mother-in-law's home in Austin, Texas. There are pictures of his kids, grandkids and his wife, Maria Ruiz. But none of David. Maria says the family has been waiting to get him back and add pictures to the walls.

Ms. MARIA RUIZ: You know, I waited 21 years, and my children were waiting for him. They thought that possibly this year or next they would finally have a father to really know them and the grandbabies--you know, the grandkids. Then that we know that they were bringing him out in a pine box.

PHILPOTT: He died of liver failure Saturday night, ending a life that some would say was a waste, considering he spent all but four years of his adult life behind bars. He was first sent to prison in February 1960, a 12-year sentence for robbing a service station and stealing a car. It was the first of four prison sentences for Ruiz. His story could have ended there, just another convict in Texas, but it didn't.

Ms. DONNA GRORBY (Ruiz's Lawyer): David Ruiz was a man who found a mission in prison. He found himself in conditions that were oppressive and inhumane and humiliating, and he stood up to say, `You can't treat me this way. And you can't treat other prisoners this way.'

PHILPOTT: Donna Grorby was lead counsel for the class-action lawsuit headed by Ruiz against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. When Ruiz entered the system in the 1960s, brutality was rampant. Wardens would often turn inmate control over to other inmates, who would then abuse the rest of the population. Ruiz and several other prisoners began filing lawsuits. His lawyer, Donna Grorby, helped him on filing legal complaints, or writs.

Ms. GRORBY: When he started writing writs as sort of the central piece in his standing up to say that he couldn't have known what would come of those writs, but I think he probably did write them with the belief that the system would be changed because it was wrong the way it was.

PHILPOTT: The class-action suit started in 1972 and was finally closed in 2002. During those three decades, Ruiz and other inmates feverishly wrote writs and, over time, many of those problems were corrected. Michelle Deutsch(ph) was a court-appointed prison monitor in the Ruiz case. She says what made Ruiz different is that he was able to rise above the labels of prisoner and habitual offender.

Ms. MICHELLE DEUTSCH: The fact that someone is in prison does not mean that they don't have good in them or something to contribute to society, and in David's case his contributions went well beyond whatever harm he caused society through his criminal actions.

PHILPOTT: Some might argue Ruiz's actions didn't help the greater society because the lawsuits' results were only seen behind bars. His wife, Maria, says people never tend to care about prisons or prisoners until it's one of their family members heading to jail.

Ms. RUIZ: And then you're gonna know what your children are gonna have to go through if you don't have someone like him to fight for your kids. Because there's nothing you can do out here for your kids. Nothing. You have to fight from the inside out.

PHILPOTT: Maria says her husband was already concerned that some of the reforms he had fought for were beginning to slip and inmate treatment was getting worse. So he never stopped working to expose inmate abuse. For NPR News, I'm Ben Philpott in Austin.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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