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Overlooked No More: Martin Sostre, Who Reformed America’s Prisons From His Cell


Martin Sostre was jailed twice on drug charges and spent nearly 20 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. In that time, he transformed himself from “a street dude, a hustler,” as he described himself, to a pioneering fighter for prisoners’ rights. “For the first time, I had a chance to think, and began reading everything I could — history, philosophy, and law,” he once said, as quoted in a 2017 NPR report that detailed his life. He taught himself the law, organized inmates and challenged harsh prison conditions, filing lawsuits from behind bars in the 1960s and ’70s — a decade before the prisoners’ rights movement began growing — that led to legal decisions ensuring greater protection for inmates.

He successfully sued for the right to practice Islam while incarcerated, which his jailers had denied him and other prisoners. And he protested some standard prison practices as dehumanizing, including censorship of inmates’ incoming mail, rectal examinations and the use of solitary confinement as punishment.

By the 1970s, Sostre’s activism while incarcerated on a drug-sale charge, which he maintained was a police setup, would make him an international symbol. He garnered the support of Jean-Paul Sartre, prominent civil-rights advocates and Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“He was raising issues of solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment long before anyone was even granting that prisoners have a constitutional right to anything,” Garrett Felber, a historian at the University of Mississippi who is editing a collection of Sostre’s writing, said in a telephone interview.


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