Prisoners' Rights Crusader Ruiz Dies

David Ruiz, the Texas prison inmate whose name became synonymous with state prison reform, died Nov. 12 at the TDCJ hospital in Galveston.

TDCJ inmate and prison reform activist David Ruiz leaving court in 1978 (with briefcase)
TDCJ inmate and prison reform activist David Ruiz leaving court in 1978 (with briefcase) (Photo By Alan Pogue)

David Ruiz, the Texas prison inmate whose name became synonymous with state prison reform, died Nov. 12 at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice hospital facility in Galveston. In 1972, Ruiz, an Austin native, became the lead plaintiff in the historic federal, class-action lawsuit alleging that Texas prison conditions violated the inmates' constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. In December 1980, after three years of discovery and a 159-day trial, federal Judge William Wayne Justice agreed and placed the state's correctional system under federal oversight. In the court order, Justice condemned the "staggering magnitude" of atrocities in Texas' prisons, including excessive beatings that ended in death, violent and frequent prisoner rapes, and the denial of access to medical care. The federal oversight, which mandated systemic change, lasted for more than 20 years, until Justice signed the final order in June 2002, bringing the federal oversight to an end and returning oversight responsibilities to the state.

Ruiz first entered prison in 1960, sentenced to a 12-year stint on a Travis Co. assault charge. After gaining parole, in 1968 he pulled another 25-year sentence for aggravated robbery. That December he escaped from TDCJ's Ellis Unit in Huntsville, but was captured two days later. He was in and out of prison two more times before receiving a life sentence in 1984 for aggravated robbery.

In a 1992 interview with the Associated Press, Ruiz said that the lengthy legal battle leading up to Justice's historic order did not deter him. "We are still human beings and should be treated in a humane manner and there are laws supporting that," he said. "I never asked for a Holiday Inn. I asked to be treated as a human being."

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