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How One Inmate Changed the Prison System from the Inside

BY JOE SHAPIRO


AUTHOR'S NOTE


His name has been lost to history, but in the 1970s, prisoners, wardens and prison guards across the U.S. knew of Martin Sostre. He was a fearless prison activist at the dawn of the age of mass incarceration, an inmate willing to risk months in solitary confinement to fight for prisoners' rights. He was one of the first prisoners to successfully challenge his conditions in court and won his biggest victory when he crossed paths with a pioneering judge.


I met Sostre shortly after he was released from prison in 1976. He'd been granted executive clemency by the governor of New York on Christmas Eve in 1975. I was a novice reporter, and he was the subject of my first big story. That year, he had been declared a political prisoner by Amnesty International; the conviction that put him behind bars was undercut when the primary witness claimed he had been pressured by police to set up Sostre.


Decades later, I'm still writing about solitary confinement and false convictions — interests of mine first sparked by Sostre. Several years ago, I started looking for him. I found a few newspaper stories from the 1980s. I found addresses in Florida and New York that may have been his. I wrote him a letter, but didn't hear back. I didn't know if he was dead or alive. I kept looking because Martin Sostre — who did so much to protect the rights of prisoners — deserves to be remembered.


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