Writ Writer

How a self-taught Texas prisoner sparked historic prison reform.
Year Released
Film Length(s)
54 mins
Closed captioning available
Remote video URL


Winner of the 2009 Silver Gavel Award, Writ Writer portrays the 1960s Texas prison reform movement.

Featured review

Writ Writer presents an extraordinary portrait of a brave and indefatigable man who stood up to insurmountable odds. Highly recommended.
P. Hall - Video Librarian
P. Hall - Video Librarian


Writ Writer portrays the historic conflict that emerged in the 1960s when Texas prisoners petitioned the courts for relief from inhumane prison conditions. Focusing on the story of self-taught jailhouse lawyer Fred Arispe Cruz, the film uncovers his legal battle, his collaboration with poverty law attorney Frances Jalet, and his successful litigation for the right of Texas prisoners to assist one another with lawsuits. His litigation paved the legal path for Ruiz v Estelle, the most comprehensive court-ordered state prison reform litigation in U.S. history.

This Silver Gavel award winner includes commentary by civil rights attorneys William Bennett Turner and Steve J. Martin, and rare on-camera interviews with former Texas prison wardens and prisoners, and illuminates a critical chapter in the contemporary history of U.S. corrections.

Archival films of Texas prison life are combined with original documentary footage to reveal a troubled prison system on the verge of historic change. Dramatic aspects of the story emerge from the courtroom testimony, correspondence and diaries of Cruz over the course of his legal battle.


Writ Writer is a terrific film about a fascinating story in correctional history. It will be of interest to instructors and students, and will stimulate a deeper understanding of the complexities of prison law and prison reform.
Todd R. Clear
PhD - John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Watching Writ Writer, viewers experience its seamless, methodical, gripping pace, which seems pitch perfect for the story it narrates - of human degradation, cunning and courage, triumph, and personal tragedy. The documentary should engage young people and adults alike. Writ Writer shows how one person can use the courage of his humanity and the resources of the law to make a difference.
American Bar Association
American Bar Association
...a profound film of sociological relevance...
Rebecca L. Bordt
PhD - Teaching Sociology
A gripping tale of a jailhouse lawyer who made a difference.
David Yas
Publisher - Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly
Recommended for human rights studies as well as criminal justice courses.
Veronica Maher - Educational Media Reviews Online
Veronica Maher - Educational Media Reviews Online
Susanne Mason's Writ Writer is a remarkable, heart-breaking, and empowering triumph. Merging extensive archival footage from the Texas prison system in the late-1960s, interviews with former prison guards, TDC officials, and prisoners, and woven together with gorgeous photographs and an original score, the documentary tells the story of Fred Cruz, the crusading jailhouse lawyer who forced the TDC to finally uphold the U.S. Constitution... For those viewers interested in the history of prison brutality, or the history of the complicated relationship between state prison systems and the U.S. Constitution...Writ Writer is a must see. Not since the award-winning Mario's Story have I been so moved by a prison-based documentary.
Stephen Hartnett
PhD - University of Colorado, Denver
Cruz's story is by turns tragic and inspiring...And Cruz became a model for subsequent jailhouse lawyers, prisoners who find the official legal system inadequate, distracted, or corrupted, and so must devise their own means to make themselves heard. As much as the film raises up Cruz's activities as heroic and his energies as frankly brilliant, the broader problems remain. When at last he was released, he found it hard to resist his past or to live with the trauma he endured in prison.
Cynthia Fuchs
PhD - www.popmatters.com
Combining interviews with friends, associates and adversaries with a narration based on Mr. Cruz's prison journals, letters, legal writings and transcripts of his court appearances, Mason creates a detailed portrait of not just the man, but the times that shaped him.
Tom Maurstad - The Dallas Morning News
Tom Maurstad - The Dallas Morning News
...I watched it - mesmerized. It is truly powerful, an amazing story, both inspiring and heartbreaking.
Howard Zinn

Awards and Screenings

Silver Gavel Award, American Bar Association, 2009
South by Southwest Film Festival, 2008
Independent Lens, PBS, 2008
CineFestival San Antonio, 2008
San Diego Latino Film Festival, 2008

Features and Languages

Film Features

  • Closed Captioning

Promotional Material

Promotional Stills

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