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Plaintiff in long-running prison lawsuit dies

Austinite David Ruiz spent all but four years of his adult life in prison.


By Mike Ward
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Monday, November 14, 2005

David Ruiz, the convicted armed robber from Austin whose landmark prisoner-rights lawsuit declared Texas' prison system unconstitutional and brought sweeping reforms, has died, officials confirmed today.

Michelle Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the 63-year-old Ruiz died about 5 p.m. Saturday of natural causes at a prison hospital in Galveston. While she would not elaborate, other prison officials said Ruiz died from kidney failure.

"His family has been notified and they are handling arrangements," Lyons said.

Ruiz gained notoriety during the past three decades as the lead plaintiff in a 1972 federal lawsuit — Ruiz v. Estelle — that brought the state's prison system under federal court supervision for more than 20 years and brought sweeping court-ordered changes — from outlawing convict supervision of prisoners to improvements in medical care and programs to the construction of prisons to alleviate chronic crowding.

Once the state remedied the illegal conditions that triggered the suit, the Ruiz case was closed in 2002.

Ruiz, serving a life term for an Austin armed robbery, had been transferred to the prison hospital several days ago, according to officials.

In an interview with the Austin American-Statesman in 2002, Ruiz acknowledged that he was an unlikely champion for reform. He spent all but four years of his adult life in prison.

Prison records show Ruiz was first sent to prison in February 1960, sentenced to 12 years for robbing a West Austin service station and stealing a two-tone green Oldsmobile sedan. Released in 1967, he returned less than a year later after pleading guilty to robbing two Austin convenience stores, this time sentenced to 25 years. Including two years he spent in federal prisons over concerns about his safety while his lawsuit was pending, and two days when he escaped from the Ellis prison unit in late 1968, Ruiz remained behind bars until his parole in July 1981.

Returned to prison two years later on a parole violation, he served four months before completing his sentence. But nine months later, he was back in prison again — sentence to life for robbery with a deadly weapon and aggravated perjury.

Born in Austin in 1942, the son of a migrant farmworker, Ruiz grew up with six brothers and six sisters, dreaming of a future as a race car driver. The closest he came was as a car thief, he would later say.

After prison-reform lawsuits had brought corrections systems in Arkansas and Mississippi under federal court control, Ruiz said he drafted his now-famous lawsuit — a first step in what, in 1980, resulted in U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice declaring conditions inside Texas prisons to be unconstitutional. While Ruiz was just one of several prisoners to file lawsuits challenging inhumane conditions, the suits were later consolidated under the name of one plaintiff — Ruiz.

In 1992, after years of legal skirmishing over reforms, construction of several new prisons and millions of dollars in threatened fines, attorneys for convicts and the state agreed to settle the lawsuit. The case was finally closed a decade later.

At that time, the gray-haired Ruiz warned that while it was time for the case to end, the improved conditions inside Texas prisons were slowly deteriorating. He promised to continue advocating for humane treatment of lawbreakers — accepting the fact that he would perhaps die in the prison system his lawsuit had so changed.

"I'm still going to be following the law, trying to work for improvements for the system," he said in an interview at the Goree prison outside Huntsville, where he served his final years. "I'm already working on my next case."
Published in Austin American-Statesman on Nov. 14, 2005
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