How One Inmate Changed The Prison System From The Inside : Code Switch The abbreviated story of Martin Sostre, a revolutionary prisoner who challenged and changed the American prison system from his cell in solitary confinement.

How One Inmate Changed The Prison System From The Inside

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What's good, y'all? I'm Gene Demby, and you're listening to a CODE SWITCH Podcast Extra. This week we're bringing you a little bit of hidden history. It's about an inmate who spent over two decades in prison but defied the odds, his keepers and the federal government to become the father of the modern prisoners' rights movement. Martin Sostre was known by prisoners, wardens and prison guards across the country back in the 1970s. And he became famous after successfully challenging prison conditions in court.

Joe Shapiro, our colleague on the NPR investigative news team, met Sostre right after Sostre was released from prison back in 1976. Joe was just a novice reporter then. And Sostre became the subject of his first big story. And decades later, he wrote a fascinating, long read for CODE SWITCH that takes us through Sostre's checkered life and his transformational impact. You can read that whole thing at For this podcast extra, though, he sat down to tell us some of Sostre's story.


JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Martin Sostre basically created the prisoners' rights movement. He brought the most important lawsuits in the 1960s and '70s. Sostre was my first big story. I was a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School. And when he was in prison, I wrote to him. I wanted to write about his case. When he got out of prison, I got to know him. He brought up cases about solitary confinement, about false convictions.

These are issues that I've been writing about the last several years. And I've always thought about Sostre. I went back. I tried to find him. I couldn't find him. I then found out in the last year that he died in late 2015, August of 2015. No newspaper, no television station, no radio program ran an obituary for him. I think he deserves to be remembered. He changed the way prisons are run in America. He gave prisoners the hope, the possibility, the chance to bring lawsuits.


SHAPIRO: He goes to prison for the first time in 1952 on a drug charge. He described himself - he was serving - he was a street dude, a hustler. He gets to prison. He finds Nation of Islam. And he talks about how when he gets to prison, he starts thinking and reading. He reads books on law and philosophy, on history. The Black Muslims were not recognized as an authorized religion. They didn't have the rights to bring ministers in or to read the Quran. And he takes part in some groundbreaking lawsuits to win this right, to practice his religion. And the courts rule in his favor. Gives them first the right to be Black Muslims in prison, but also says that a state inmate doesn't have to just go to state court, they can use federal civil rights law to challenge the conditions in state prisons.

He gets out. He moves to Buffalo. He starts a bookstore selling Black nationalist, leftist books. And he becomes a target of the police. There are riots in Buffalo in 1967. The police blame him for instigating them. And a few weeks later, he's arrested on another drug charge, selling heroin. He says he never did it. He says it's a frame-up. Years later, the main witness against him says, yes, I helped frame Martin Sostre. So he goes back to prison. And both times, he's filing these lawsuits. And the prison authorities react to these lawsuits by putting him in solitary confinement for extended periods of time.


MARTIN SOSTRE: Now they have me in solitary confinement. They don't even let me have a straight pin. All I have in my cell is just law books, which I have on the floor because there's no furniture in the cell, just a bed - no table, no desk, no nothing. They won't let me have my typewriter. They won't let you have a fingernail file, no deodorant, no nothing.

SHAPIRO: Now, this is a clip from a 1974 documentary called "Frame-Up! The Imprisonment Of Martin Sostre."


SOSTRE: But yet they require that every time you leave your cell, the solitary confinement building, to go, let's say, to the hospital inside the prison or to go to the visitor's room to see your attorney or to see your private visit that you strip down naked, you bend over and spread your cheeks. Now, they know you don't have anything in your rectum. They just do this to dehumanize you because once the man bends over and spreads his cheeks to two or three hags leering at you, that's a sign of - not only of submission, but it's symbolic of being sodomized. And a lot of prisoners submit to that. But I'm not going to submit.

SHAPIRO: He spent about nine years in solitary confinement.


SHAPIRO: In 1969, he wins this major lawsuit where Judge Constance Baker Motley - she's, by the way, the first Black female judge appointed to the federal bench. She rules that prison authorities need to release him from solitary confinement right away. And she finds that the conditions have been cruel and that he's been punished for his political beliefs, not because he violated any prison rules.


SHAPIRO: This is the ground crumbling under the feet of prison wardens. For the first time, a court is saying to them, you can't run the prison any way you want. This man has rights. You can't just throw him in for political beliefs. That's what Constance Baker Motley found - that it's not business as usual, that prisoners are going to have rights to challenge their solitary confinement and conditions in prison.


SOSTRE: They transferred me from the solitary confinement in - which they call segregation. They've the names now. The prisons are no longer prisons. They're facilities, correctional facilities. I understand they want to change the name of this joint.


SOSTRE: Well, while they're changing names, they might as well name it the Waldorf, you know?

SHAPIRO: You know, he was smart. He was funny. And he knew how to use the Constitution to assert his rights and to challenge those absurdities. He loved to get under the skin of these prison wardens. And here's some tape that we're going to play that sort of shows that. This is a debate, again, from the documentary "Frame-Up!" So Sostre is sitting side by side with a guy named Frank Festa. He's the warden of the Erie County Jail. And Sostre's complaining to him about the conditions in the cells in the jail.


SOSTRE: This is very barbaric. Even in upstate...

FRANK FESTA: We don't have...

SOSTRE: We have a screen.

FESTA: We don't have dungeons here. Mr. Sostre is referring to single cells. We have no dormitories here. Everybody has a single cell with a toilet, washbowl and bed in it. It has a light in it.

SOSTRE: Oh, I'd sure like to know where it is that you have those cells that have lights because none of the floors that I've been in have - the cells have light.

FESTA: Well, you're in the witness block. And there are lights out in that area where you are able...

SOSTRE: Hall lights, not inside the cells.

FESTA: Inside there's a - well, one was torn out by a previous tenant and smashed and et cetera in the same block you're in.

SOSTRE: Well, I was in A Block on the regular gallery. They didn't have no lights.

FESTA: Well, there's lights...

SOSTRE: And maybe they just don't know that you put light bulbs - you have, actually, lights in the cells with fixtures...

FESTA: Let me ask you a question. Are the men are able to sit out in the exercise area all day long?

SOSTRE: Well, we're getting away from the lights now.

FESTA: Well, there's - lighting is out there.

SOSTRE: Inside - in the cell or outside?

FESTA: The lighting is out there. There are night lights.

SOSTRE: Oh, out in the hall? Oh, that's different out in the hall. But there's no lights inside the cell.

FESTA: What you're advocating is there be chandeliers in every cell in the jail.

SOSTRE: No, just plain, ordinary...

FESTA: Well, it's not going to be done.

SOSTRE: See; I made you get up off that lie, you know (laughter)?

FESTA: There's no lying. I mean - well, at least...

SOSTRE: There's no lights in the cell. We got...

FESTA: At least we got past the dungeon stage, you know, the deep dungeon.

SOSTRE: Yeah. Well, call it a cell, a barred cell, the tiger cells of Vietnam.

SHAPIRO: That's so typical of Martin Sostre, you know? He uses the facts when they're on his side. And then at the end when he's sort of won his argument, he uses that kind of gratuitous and exaggerated political rhetoric, comparing his cell to the tiger cells that the South Vietnamese government used. And those were these small, underground, concrete trenches that were so crowded with prisoners that they couldn't even stand up.


SHAPIRO: After he gets executive clemency but before he comes out of prison, I remember we were talking on the phone from the prison where he's being held. He talked about how he was excited about having his freedom. But he said, you know, here in prison, this is a maximum-security facility. But when I'm out in society, that's a minimum-security prison. He was on parole. He was going to be watched. He was worried that the police would find some excuse to send him back to prison.


SHAPIRO: The last time I saw him, it was a nice, spring day. I walked from Morningside Heights up to his office in Harlem. He was working for a state lawmaker doing tenants' rights work. And he had a small goatee, the way he did in prison. And in the pocket of his denim jacket, he kept his parole agreement.

And he reads it to me. He shows me. He says, look; I can't get married, change my job, change where I live unless I get permission from my parole officer. And look at this sentence. And he points out, it says, he's not to be a menace to society. He says, what's that mean? I'm getting invited to college campuses to talk about conditions in prisons. I talk about how I didn't get justice and how the system is rigged. And I say, we need a new government. He says, could they use something that I say as a reason to send me back to prison? He was worried about that. That was a real concern for him. He didn't feel totally free.

But he lived a more quiet life after that. He was always involved - he always interested in politics. He was always involved. But he led a more quiet life. It's what he wanted. And the result was that his name has been lost to history. He was central to expanding the rights of prisoners in America. That's why I wrote this for CODE SWITCH. I think Martin Sostre deserves to be remembered. And it's a great American story.


DEMBY: That was Joe Shapiro of NPR's investigative news team. You can read a longer version of Martin Sostre's story at Special thanks to Joel Sucher and Steven Fischler at Pacific Street Films for allowing us to use clips from the documentary "Frame Up!" Follow us on Twitter. We're at @NPRCodeSwitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed. Music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions. Walter Ray Watson, Michael May and Saidu Tejan-Thomas produced this episode. And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Shereen Marisol Meraji, Leah Donnella, Adrian Florido, Karen Grigsby Bates, Kat Chow Sami Yenigun and our intern Jorge Encinas. Our editor is Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. I'm Gene Demby. Be easy.

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