[Pnews] In Honor of Martin Sostre and the Fight against Solitary Confinement

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Feb 20 17:12:19 EST 2018


  Martin Sostre and the Fight against Solitary Confinement

*By Garrett Felber -* <https://www.aaihs.org/author/gfelb/> May 16, 2016 

In the summer of 2015, President Barack Obama finally broke the silence 
on the use of solitary confinement, calling for a review 
the Department of Justice of isolation and its effects. Earlier this 
year, he banned isolation 
in federal juvenile prisons. Solitary confinement has long been a form a 
psychological torture and prison discipline, honed throughout the 20th 
century at some of America’s most notorious prisons such as San Quentin 
and Attica. Solitary has its origins in the Pennsylvania system, a 
Quaker-derived practice of penitence and rehabilitation. At Eastern 
State Penitentiary, prisoners were held in solitary cells 16-feet-high, 
12-feet-long, and 7.5-feet-wide with an individual exercise yard. New 
York’s Auburn system, which supplanted it in the early 19^th century, 
modified this approach by introducing collective prison labor while 
maintaining solitary confinement at night. Today, as Angela Davis notes, 
“not even the most ardent defenders of the supermax – would try to argue 
today that absolute segregation, including sensory deprivation, is 
restorative and healing.” Yet Martin Sostre, one of the most important 
figures issuing early challenges to the use of solitary confinement, who 
was once mentioned in the same breath as Davis, Assata Shakur, Ruchell 
Magee, and other political prisoners in the early 1970s, has been 
largely lost to history.

Martin Gonzalez Sostre was born in Harlem to Puerto Rican and Haitian 
parents in 1923. There, he was influenced by Lewis Michaux’s 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEPE-OTuc1Q>African National Memorial 
Bookstore and the step-ladder orators on 125th Street. He dropped out of 
school in the tenth grade and was drafted in 1942. After serving a brief 
stint in Korea, he was arrested in 1952 for heroin possession. After 
three years at Clinton Prison in Dannemora, New York, Sostre met Teddy 
Anderson, a Muslim of the Ahmadiyya 
<https://www.alislam.org/introduction/>faith, and converted to Islam in 
1956. By 1959, he had organized a vibrant political and religious 
community at Clinton and helped initiate one of the first lawsuits 
against the state for violations of religious rights: /Pierce v. LaVallee/.

Although the Nation of Islam’s lawyer, Edward Jacko, and Sostre 
attempted to bring issues of prison discipline before the court, the 
“hands off” policy of the judicial branch with regard to the 
constitutional rights of prisoners had yet to be breached. Judge Stephen 
Brennan repeatedly told the defendants: “I am not interested in 
questions of solitary confinement.” When pushed further, he insisted 
that he would not “interfere with prison regulations.” By the end of 
Sostre’s first incarceration in 1964, he had spent 5 years in solitary 
confinement for his religious and political beliefs.

Shortly after he was released in 1964, Sostre opened an Afro-Asian 
Bookstore in Buffalo, New York while working at Bethlehem Steel. The 
bookstore exposed neighborhood youth to the writings and speeches of 
Robert F. Williams, 
X, <https://www.aaihs.org/reconsidering-malcolm-x-and-islam/>and 
Chairman Mau. Like Eldridge Cleaver and many other Muslim prisoners, 
Sostre left the Nation of Islam after Malcolm X split with the NOI and 
was assassinated the following year. In 1967, following a summer of 
civil disorder and amidst the larger context of black uprisings in 
Watts, Newark, and Detroit, police raided Sostre’s bookstore and charged 
him with narcotics possession, arson, and assault.

Having studied law during his first stint at Clinton and Attica, Sostre 
represented himself in court. He challenged the all-white jury selection 
by pressing potential jurors about their relationship to the black 
community in Buffalo:

/*Sostre:* You stated that you didn’t live with Negroes. Would you 
object to living in an integrated neighborhood?/



/*Juror:*It depends on the type of Negro. Some aren’t nice./

/*Sostre:*Well, isn’t that the situation in your all-white neighborhood? 
It has some people who are ‘nice’ and some not so‘nice.’/

/*Juror: *No, everyone in my neighborhood is nice./

/*Sostre:*If you neighborhood were colored and so-called ‘nice,’ would 
you have any objection to living there?/

/*Judge:*The lady already said no. /

/*Sostre:*Do you believe in open housing?/

*Judge:*/Let’s not get into philosophical discussions./

Sostre eventually asked the jurors if they believed there was racism in 
America. When Sostre claimed that it was a “very important issue,” the 
judge responded: “It is insignificant to me.” The final dialogue between 
judge and defendant reveals the deeply-sanctioned racism of the U.S. 
courts as well as Sostre’s ability to use the courtroom as an arena for 
radical politics:

/*Sostre:* At least make a little show, Your Honor! Everyone knows it’s 
a frame-up but you ought, at least, to make a little show of conducting 
a trial. [turning to a juror] In your determination of the issues of 
this case you said you would go along strictly with the law instead of 
using your own conscience. You would go strictly by law regardless of 

/*Judge:*That’s his duty and his obligation!/

/*Sostre:* That’s where we differ, Judge, because a person’s conscience 
and morality transcends the law./

A year before Bobby Seale was infamously bound in the courtroom trial of 
the “Chicago Seven <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_Seven>,” 
Sostre was handcuffed and gagged before being sentenced by an all-white 
jury to 31-41 years because of his prior convictions.

In 1969, Judge Constance Motley heard Sostre’s case regarding solitary 
confinement and ordered that he be returned to general population. She 
opined: “It is not a function of our prison system to make prisoners 
conform in their political thought and belief to ideas acceptable to 
their jailers.” Motley also awarded him with nearly $10,000 in damages 
and forbade prison officials from putting him in solitary confinement 
without a hearing.

During the trial, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin 
testified that in his studies, a week or less in solitary had “gravely 
psychologically damaged” those imprisoned and made them feel “less than 
human.” Sostre emphasized the ways in which his own isolation was a 
product of being unwilling to suffer this dehumanization. He refused to 
submit to rectal examinations, pointing out that for those in solitary 
without possessions,  it was a practice meant only to dehumanize. In a 
1973 letter to Judge Kaufman, he explained that “I shall refuse each 
time and defend myself against any physical attack. They may succeed in 
beating me to death, but they shall never succeed in forcing me to 
relinquish what in the final analysis are the final citadels of my 
personality, human dignity and self respect.”

In addition to his refusal to submit to rectal examinations and to shave 
his quarter-inch-length beard, Sostre organized a labor union in 1969 at 
Walkill Prison in order to “equalize to the fullest extent possible, the 
rights, privileges and protection of prison labor with those of free 
labor everywhere.” In 1970, he began editing a black revolutionary 
newspaper called /Black News/ printed in Buffalo. As Sostre explained: 
“As our name implies, we are a Black, not a kneegrow newspaper. Not just 
a Black newspaper, but a Black /revolutionary/ newspaper.” Sostre 
established a free lending library on Black History at Walkill and 
helped to institute a Black Studies program. In 1972, he led a strike in 
the license plate shop at Auburn Prison. Two years later, despite an 
affidavit from the state’s key witness in his 1968 trial, Arto Williams, 
who admitted that he had testified against Sostre in return for a lesser 
sentence on his own pending charges, the court refused to retry the case.

Sostre continued to sharpen and expand his political analysis. In 1974, 
he wrote to his supporters that although nothing had changed and he 
remained “in the box in the same cell . . . I am many times better off 
politically and legally than I was before . . . Moreover, Watergate has 
made the people more knowledgeable and less naïve concerning the 
repressive mentality of those who stand for ‘law and order.’” He had 
long stood against the war in Vietnam, calling racism and militarism 
“two claws of the same hawk.” “Like the struggle in Vietenam,” he wrote, 
“the struggle against us is one they cannot win.” He even compared 
himself to “the brave and resolute people in Vietnam who are struggling 
against the common oppressor . . . . I consider myself a Black Viet Cong.”

The writings of Shulamith Firestone 
and women of color feminists also convinced Sostre that women’s 
liberation was the new vanguardist movement. He wrote that in the 
“world’s liberation struggle against all forms of oppression, I view the 
struggle for the liberation of women as the most widespread and 
humanistic.” Even as a self-identified Marxist, he admitted that the 
“mere overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with socialism does 
not, of itself, liberate women from male chauvinistic oppression”; nor 
did it “even eradicate racism.”

Sostre remained in prison until his sentence was commuted in 1975 by 
Governor Hugh Carey amidst political pressure from Amnesty International 
and dozens of Martin Sostre Defense Committees throughout the country. 
Of all Sostre’s contributions to the prisoners’ rights movement – 
establishing the constitutional rights of prisoners, fighting for access 
to legal materials, and establishing unions and advocating a minimum 
wage – his greatest contribution was to understand the relationship 
between state repression and prisoner radicalism. As he wrote following 
the Attica Uprising in 1971: “If Attica fell to us in a matter of hours 
despite it being your most secure maximum security prison-fortress 
equipped with your latest repressive technology, so shall fall all your 
fortresses, inside and out. Revolutionary spirit conquers all obstacles.”

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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