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Pierce v. LaVallee

FILED 1959

This is a historic case about religious liberty and discipline in New York prisons. It's part of the Clearinghouse's collection of several cases brought by prisoners rights activist (and prisoner) Martin Sostre.

Sostre brought this lawsuit to challenge policies surrounding religious expression at Clinton State Prison in New York. In August 1959, prison officials charged Sostre and two other individuals with “agitating.” The plaintiffs sued the Clinton State Prison warden in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York under §1983 and state law. Sostre alleged that prison officials had denied him access to the Koran, subjected him to solitary confinement and deprived him good time credits because of his religious beliefs, and denied him permission to establish contact with a spiritual advisor.

While we do not have information about the early stages of the litigation, the district court held a trial on the issue of the prison denying Sostre access to the Koran. The court explained this decision: the other claims concerned matters of prison discipline that could be reviewed only in the state courts. At this point, Sostre no longer pursued the issue regarding the right to contact a spiritual advisor but continued to seek to relief regarding solitary confinement and deprive of good time credits.


The case reached the Second Circuit Court of Appeals after that trial, and the appellate court issued its opinion on July 31, 1961. 293 F.2d 233. Sostre’s appeal was consolidated with appeals in cases brought by two other men incarcerated at Clinton. The appeals court looked to cases from the Ninth and Seventh Circuits, which had held that prison discipline-related claims belonged in state courts. But the Second Circuit distinguished this case, because the plaintiffs before it had sought relief on religious liberty grounds, instead of solely physical abuse or restrictions on liberty. The doctrine of Pullman abstention did not pose a bar because there were no unresolved questions of state law, and the defendant did not give a reason why a state forum would be better. Thus, the federal district court could hear all of the plaintiffs’ remaining claims. Judge Dawson, a district court judge sitting by designation, dissented from this opinion, arguing that the plaintiffs had abandoned these issues. (This was prior to the landmark case of Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546 (1964), in which the U.S. Supreme Courr held that a similar claim about discriminatory prison denial of access to Muslim texts properly alleged a constitutional violation, citing Pierce v. LaVallee.)


The Second Circuit then remanded the case back to the district court. This remand excluded the issue about the right to purchase the Koran, because the Commissioner of Correction had issued a directive to New York prison wardens that approved four different Koran translations. These translations included the one sought by the plaintiffs.

Back in the district court, the court held a trial on the plaintiffs’ claims that they had been disciplined solely because of their religious beliefs. On May 11, 1962, the court issued its opinion. It held that the plaintiffs had each individually failed to establish that the discipline was imposed solely because of their religious beliefs, so the complaint in each individual action should be dismissed. It found that the Muslim Brotherhood was an organization instead of a religious practice and credited the defendant’s concern that the plaintiffs’ activities would cause unrest in the prison. 212 F.Supp. 865.

The plaintiffs appealed again to the Second Circuit; on July 18, 1963, the court of appeals affirmed the district court’s order. 319 F.2d 844 (per curiam). And the Supreme Court subsequently denied each of the three plaintiffs’ petitions for certiorari review. Sostre v. Wilkins, 374 U.S. 850 (June 17, 1963); Pierce v. Lavallee, 376 U.S. 918 (Feb. 17, 1964); Samarion v. McGinnis, 379 U.S. 950 (Dec. 14, 1964).


Pierce v. LaVallee
Sostre v. McGinnis

Sostre v. McGinnis

FILED 1962

This is a historic case about religious liberty in New York prisons. It's part of the Clearinghouse's collection of several cases brought by prisoners rights activist (and prisoner) Martin Sostre.

In 1964, Sostre and other individuals incarcerated at Attica sued the New York Commissioner of Correction and the warden of Attica under §1983. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendant violated their rights with respect to their religious practice, including the right “to attend together congregational worship,” communicate with ministers of their faith, have such ministers visit the prison, and possess various religious publications. The plaintiffs sought injunctive relief, including an order that the defendants provide congregational religious services and cease enforcing regulations which prohibited the plaintiffs and other incarcerated Muslim people at Attica from conducting their religious activities. They additionally sought an injunction to restore their good time credits.


We do not have much information about the initial stages of this litigation, but according to the subsequent appellate decision, the district court entered judgment for the defendants on the religious persecution claim and otherwise dismissed the complaint. The court reasoned that a federal court should abstain deciding the case while New York state courts were given an opportunity to act determine the plaintiff’ rights under New York law.

The plaintiffs appealed this decision to the Second Circuit, which reversed and remanded the district court. The appeals court agreed that the state courts must be given an opportunity to propose workable rules for prison administration of these religious rights. But the court determined that the district court should retain jurisdiction to intervene if the state unreasonably delayed proposing those rules.


The Second Circuit found that the district court did not clearly err in finding that the Muslim Brotherhood, with which the plaintiffs associated, constituted a religion. The court cited Pierce v. LaVallee, 293 F.2d 233 (2d Cir. 1961), another case litigated by Martin Sostre, to note that individuals have constitutional protection to practice their religious even while confined to prison, although officials could place extensive limitations in the context of prison administration. 334 F.2d 906. This idea — “insofar as possible within the limits of prison discipline[,]” incarcerated people should be allowed to practice their religion in prison — was groundbreaking at the time. See Derek L. Gaubatz, RLUIPA at Four: Evaluating the Success and Constitutionality of RLUIPA’s Prisoner Provisions, 28 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 501, 507 (2005).


The plaintiffs sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court denied their petition. 379 U.S. 892 (October 26, 1964).

We do not have additional information about the case.



Sostre v. Rockefeller

Sostre v. Rockefeller

FILED 1968

This is a historic case about mail censorship, religious discrimination, and solitary confinement issues in New York prisons.  It's one of several brought by prisoners' rights activist (and prisoner) Martin Sostre.   

On June 25, 1968, Martin Sostre, a New York prisoner, was ordered into punitive segregation based on alleged rule infractions. To challenge this order, he filed this lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on October 15, 1968, naming as defendants Governor Rockefeller, NY attorney general {}, the New York State Commissioner of Correction, and the warden. Sostre alleged that his confinement violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

A few months later, on February 4, 1969, the court denied the defendants' motion to dismiss. We do not have additional information on this opinion or the court’s reasoning. Shortly after, district judge Constance Baker Motley granted a temporary restraining order — the defendants could no longer hold Sostre in punitive segregation.

In light of the TRO, Sostre moved for a preliminary injunction to order his release from punitive segregation, and the court held a hearing on that issue in June 1969.

Sostre amended his complaint on July 30, 1969, but we do not have additional information on the changes.

That same summer, the prison imposed additional disciplinary measures on Sostre, depriving him of yard time and movie privileges for 60 days. In early August 1969, he was again disciplined for having “inflammatory racist literature” in his cell, which only consisted of his own handwritten political articles, some of which contained excerpts from articles printed in newspapers and magazines. At this time, the warden censored all Sostre’s written correspondence with his attorney. And the warden also refused to mail a letter to the Postal Inspector of the United States Post Office complaining about Sostre’s failure to receive receipts for certified mail.

Judge Motley issued her opinion on the preliminary injunction motion on September 5, 1969. The court held that Sostre was entitled to the preliminary injunction “in the absence of showing that prison discipline would be undermined, or the prison administration interfered with by his release from the segregation unit pending trial of the action.” 309 F. Supp. 611. The court reasoned the Eighth Amendment claims provided sufficient grounds to order the injunction without considering the Fifth Amendment claim, because the punishment that the prison imposed was disproportionate to Sostre’s infractions. Additionally, the court compared the facts here to those in Fulwood v. Clemmer, 206 F.Supp. 370 (D.D.C. 1962). There, a Muslim incarcerated person had broken a prison rule when he preached on racial issues in the prison recreation field; prison officials sentenced him to segregation for more than two years.

At some point while these proceedings were ongoing, prison officials punished Sostre again, specifically for possessing “inflammatory racist literature.” Those materials included his own writings and newspapers and magazines he was permitted to have. The exact timeline of these disciplinary actions is not clear from the court opinions.

After Judge Motley ordered Sostre’s release, discovery proceeded in the case until trial, which occurred from November 3–7, 1969. Judge Motley issued the court’s opinion on May 14, 1970, holding that Sostre’s constitutional rights were violated and ordering an array of injunctive remedies. 312 F.Supp. 863. The court ordered that (1) to comport with procedural due process, before good time credit could be taken away, the incarcerated person was entitled to a recorded hearing before an impartial tribunal with counsel or a counsel substitute, confrontation and cross-examination, a written notice of charges in advance of the hearing; (2) officials could not censor or intercept mail to lawyers, courts, public officials, or other inmates about legal matters; (3) Sostre would not be prohibited from helping other incarcerated people with legal matters or lending them legal materials, so long as a court-approved alternative was not available; and (4) the defendants violated the First Amendment and Sostre would be allowed to possess political literature and express his views, subject to court-approved limitations.

Furthermore, Judge Motley ruled that confinement to segregation for more than 15 days violated the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause. She found that “that punitive segregation under the conditions to which plaintiff was subjected at Green Haven is physically harsh, destructive of morale, dehumanizing in the sense that it is needlessly degrading, and dangerous to the maintenance of sanity when continued for more than a short period of time which should certainly not exceed 15 days.” Elaborating, she explained that this discipline was imposed “not because of any serious infraction of the rules . . . but because Sostre was being punished specially by the Warden because of his legal and Black Muslim activities during his 1952-1964 incarceration, because of his threat to file a law suit against the Warden to secure his right to unrestricted correspondence with his attorney and to aid his codefendant . . . and because he is, unquestionably, a black militant who persists in writing and expressing his militant and radical ideas in prison.” Accordingly, she ordered the defendants to submit rules relating to political literature and due process at disciplinary hearings. She imposed compensatory damages of $9,300 and a punitive damages award of $3,720.

Specifically on the access to courts and public officials claim, Judge Motley explained that the warden’s refusal to mail filings related to challenged him convictions immediately after he arrived at Attica and then after his arrival at Green Haven “was not such an unreasonable restriction of plaintiff's rights as to require a finding of unconstitutional action by defendants in this respect.” The prison did mail the filing shortly after his arrival at Green Haven and it was still timely.

Sostre had also raised a claim regarding racial discrimination in the operation of state prisons. The court held that he failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the number of non-white guards and other personnel resulted from racial discrimination against qualified applicants or a conspiracy to deny positions to Black and Puerto Rican people.

Finally, Judge Motley addressed a jurisdictional issue: the defendants argued that sovereign immunity shielded them from suit, but Ex Parte Young and §1983 both provided Sostre with causes of action.

Shortly after, however, the defendants appealed the district court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. They also applied for a stay of district court’s order while their appeal pended and moved for new trial on June 12, 1970. The district court held a hearing and denied the proposed stay with respect to the permanent injunction.

Separately, on June 15, 1970, Sostre again amended his complaint. And on November 25, 1970, he filed a habeas petition. We do not have additional information about this related habeas case or the amended complaint.

On February 24, 1971, the Second Circuit sitting en banc reversed and remanded the district court in part in an opinion written by Judge Irving Kaufman. 442 F.2d 178. The appeals court reversed almost every injunctive measure, except the district court’s restoration of Sostre’s good time credits. However, the Second Circuit affirmed the compensatory damages award and the right to possess political literature, albeit permitting “reasonable regulation.” It reversed the punitive damages award.

First, the court of appeals reversed the 15-day limit that Judge Motley placed on segregation. Instead, endorsing a more limited view of the Eighth Amendment’s scope, Judge Kaufman's opinion authorized indefinite confinement until the incarcerated person’s “attitude improved” or until he had “successfully participated” in group therapy. The court described Judge Motley’s opinion as drastically interfering with the state administrative process, and that the conditions did not meet the Eighth Amendment’s “barbarous, shocking to the conscience standard.” The court of appeals did add qualifying language, however. It explained in a footnote that it was relying on “the seriousness of the multiple offenses charged against Sostre . . . and express[ed] no view as to the constitutionality of such segregated confinement . . . for lesser offenses.” This view comported with most other circuits at the time. Judith Resnick, The Puzzles of Prisoners and Rights: An Essay in Honor of Frank Johnson, 71 Ala. L. Rev. 665, 703 (2020).

Second, on the religious liberty issues, the court of appeals agreed that Sostre could not be punished for his mere possession of materials. The Second Circuit explained that “[a]ny real threat to prison security that Sostre’s possession of his writing might have posed could have been met by confiscation rather than punishment.” Emphasizing deference to the warden’s judgment, the court added that if prison officials did attempt to seize materials, then a “clear and present danger” First Amendment analysis might be warranted.

Third, on the issue related to Sostre’s mail, the court agreed that prison administrators could not delete any content in letters to courts, lawyers and public officials. But the court allowed prison officials to open and read all incoming and outgoing mail, because the mail might have contained contraband, escape plans or communications “about restricted matters.” Per scholarship on this litigation, the New York Department of Correction changed their mail policy shortly after. See Herman Schwartz, A Comment on Sostre v. McGinnis, 21 Buffalo L. Rev. 775, 787 (1972).

Fourth, on procedural due process related to discipline at the prison, the Second Circuit overturned Judge Motley’s ruling that required counsel or substitute counsel, confrontation and cross-examination, an impartial tribunal, written charges and a reasoned opinion. It held that these measures were not constitutionally required.

Finally, the court weighed in on the prisoner legal assistance issue — Sostre’s punishment for trying to help others with their legal issues. The court reversed the award of relief on this issue because Sostre had not obeyed the prison regulation requiring him to seek permission to provide that assistance.

After this opinion was announced, Sostre filed a motion for leave to petition for partial reconsideration on April 6. The Second Circuit denied it two days later. Sostre subsequently filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which the Supreme Court denied. 404 U.S. 1049 (Jan. 17, 1972). In addition, the government sought certiorari review, and the Supreme Court denied that, too. Oswald v. Sostre, 405 U.S. 978 (Mar. 6, 1972).


Sostre v. Otis

Sostre v. Otis

FILED 1970

This is a historic case about the receipt of mail in New York prisons, one of the Clearinghouse's collection of cases brought by prisoners' rights activist Martin Sostre.

Martin Sostre sought an order enjoining the officers at Wallkill Correctional Facility from interfering with his receipt of literature which he ordered through the prison mail. He had been transferred to that prison in early August 1969. Sostre sued the former Walkill warden and the former New York Commissioner of Correction in March 1970 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He sought an injunction and $20,000 in damages.

The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim and for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Judge Constance Baker Motley denied the motion on June 3, 1970, and the defendants filed an answer to the complaint on July 9, 1970.

On October 27, 1970, Sostre, proceeding pro se, moved for judgment on the pleadings. The defendants had requested that the court defer its decision pending the outcome of Sostre v. McGinnis, 442 F.2d 178, argued en banc in the Second Circuit on October 21, 1970. (Described here.)

On March 24, 1971, the New York State Department of Correction adopted a new procedure for screening publications sent to state prisoners and established a review committee as part of this new process. Two days after this change, several civil rights lawyers entered an appearance for Sostre and filed a memorandum of law in support of his motion for judgment on the pleadings. In this new memorandum, Sostre withdrew the damages claim and substituted the acting prison superintendent and the current commissioner as defendants.

In an opinion by Judge Mansfield, the court ruled for Sostre on the pleadings on June 28, 1971. The court held that the prison’s procedure for screening literature was constitutionally deficient. Under that new system, a committee of prison officials decided censorship disputes, guided by a list of criteria and with a presumption that literature should be freely available, and decisions were required to be reached within certain time limits. But the process did not give incarcerated people notice of reason for delays in receipt of literature or that they could present arguments to committee. The court reaffirmed the “constitutional right to rudimentary due process under prison conditions including (1) notice; (2) some opportunity to object (either personally or in writing), and (3) a decision by a body that can be expected to act fairly.” The court declined to provide detailed rules and procedures. 330 F. Supp. 941.

The court then detailed the problems with the process: it was ex parte without any notice given to the publisher or person who ordered it. it did not place the burden of showing that censored literature was not protected on the censors, and it appeared to permit a final decision without any judicial determination. Citing the Second Circuit opinion in McGinnis, the court concluded “that any prison regulation or practice which restricts the right of free expression that a prisoner would have enjoyed if he had not been imprisoned must be related both reasonably to advancement of justifiable purpose of prison.” That case, however, did not addressed the issue of an incarcerated person’s right to receive and read literature. The court continued on to note the benefits of a better administrative procedure: “federal courts might be relieved of jurisdiction, at least until administrative remedies had been exercised.”

In conclusion, the court did somewhat qualify its holding. It explained that prisons could impose some censorship, looking to the deference that the McGinnis opinion afforded to prison administrators. The court stayed the order for 40 days from to permit modification of the procedure in order to ensure notice and an opportunity to be heard.

Sostre v. Preiser

Sostre v. Preiser

FILED 1973

This is a historic case about prisoner rights in New York prisons. It's part of the Clearinghouse's collection of several cases brought by prisoners rights activist (and prisoner) Martin Sostre.

On September 18, 1973, Sostre filed this lawsuit, pro se, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. He sued New York State’s Commissioner of Corrections and the Wardens of Auburn and Clinton Prisons under §1983 a few days after he was allegedly beaten in the Segregation Unit at Clinton Prison, by a squad of seven or more officers, when he refused to bend over and spread his buttocks to exhibit his anus to them in the course of a strip search. The Complaint asserted seventeen separate causes of action, including wrongful punishment and indefinite confinement to segregation, wrongful application of the no-beard rule, wrongful imposition of the rectal search, wrongful denial of visits from attorneys, clergy and friends, interference with mail, and wrongful punitive transfer from Auburn to Clinton. Sostre sought declaratory and injunctive relief, and money damages.

On September 14, 1973, Judge Edmund Port entered an order finding the complaint sufficient in law to permit the plaintiff to proceed in forma pauperis. The case then lay dormant in the Northern District for sixteen months until Sostre was able to obtain counsel; starting February, 1975, he was represented by radical prisoners’ rights lawyers Michael Deutsch and Dennis Cunningham. 

Once Sostre obtained counsel, the Court agreed to hear his motion for preliminary relief, and entered an order directing that the plaintiff be brought into federal custody so he would not again have to face the forcible search and re-confinement to the Segregation Unit. On March 4 and 5, 1975, a hearing was held pertaining to Sostre’s request for preliminary relief. That request included that the defendants be enjoined from (1) enforcing a rule or regulation prohibiting inmates at Clinton Correctional Facility from wearing a beard; (2) continuing to punish plaintiff for violating the no-beard rule or regulation; and (3) requiring the plaintiff to submit to a rectal search upon entering and leaving a Special Housing Unit at Clinton Correctional Facility.

The district court denied preliminary relief, finding that plaintiff failed to show likely success on the merits and irreparable injury. Judge Port ordered Sostre returned to the custody of the Clinton Prison. However, this order was stayed, with the agreement of defendants, pending disposition of plaintiff's appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

On June 19, 1975, the appeals court reversed the district court's denial of preliminary relief and remanded the matter to the district court. In an opinion written by Judge Oakes, the Second Circuit concluded that it could not rule on the relief sought because the record did not establish what the "no-beard" and "rectal search" rules, if they were such, required. Without knowing what the rules said, the court determined it could not ascertain whether the rules had been properly applied. It remanded the case to the district court for record development and re-evaluation. The opinion, however, reaffirmed that prison inmates are entitled to certain fundamental rights, and stated that limitations on such rights "must be supported by the legitimate and reasonable needs and exigencies of the institutional environment," and that these limitations must be narrowly tailored. The opinion also stated that the district court would not be amiss were it to continue the stay order in effect to keep plaintiff in federal custody. 519 F.2d 763

By this time, Sostre had gained international news media attention and been labeled as a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International. In December 1975, New York's governor Hugh Carey granted Sostre clemency, and he was released from custody. Presumably, this case was mooted as a result; federal records show that the case officially ended on Jan. 18, 1978.


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