Case: Sostre v. Preiser

6:73-cv-00421 | U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York

Filed Date: Sept. 18, 1973

Closed Date: Jan. 18, 1978

Clearinghouse coding complete

Case Summary

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, whose wikipedia biography is here.  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…

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, whose wikipedia biography is here

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.

Summary Authors

Michelle Wolk (7/1/2022)

Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

6:73-cv-00421

Docket Sheet

March 14, 1974

March 14, 1974

Docket

6:73-cv-00421

Order

March 6, 1975

March 6, 1975

Order/Opinion

75-cv-02036

Appellant's Brief

U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

March 28, 1975

March 28, 1975

Pleading / Motion / Brief

75-cv-02036

Appellant's Appendix

U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

March 28, 1975

March 28, 1975

Pleading / Motion / Brief

75-cv-02036

Appellee's Brief

U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

April 2, 1975

April 2, 1975

Pleading / Motion / Brief

75-cv-02036

Judgment remanding the case to the district court for the development of a more detailed record

U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

519 F.2d 763

June 19, 1975

June 19, 1975

Order/Opinion

Resources

Docket

Last updated Aug. 4, 2022, 3:07 a.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: New York

Case Type(s):

Prison Conditions

Special Collection(s):

Martin Sostre cases

Key Dates

Filing Date: Sept. 18, 1973

Closing Date: Jan. 18, 1978

Case Ongoing: No

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

Martin Sostre, a prison activist incarcerated in New York state prisons.

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Public Interest Lawyer: No

Filed Pro Se: Yes

Class Action Sought: No

Class Action Outcome: Not sought

Defendants

Commissioner of New York State Department of Correctional Services, State

Auburn Correctional Facility (Auburn, New York), State

Clinton Correctional Facility (Dannemora, New York), State

Defendant Type(s):

Corrections

Case Details

Causes of Action:

42 U.S.C. § 1983

Availably Documents:

Trial Court Docket

Non-settlement Outcome

Any published opinion

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Mixed

Nature of Relief:

None

Source of Relief:

Litigation

Content of Injunction:

Preliminary relief denied

Issues

General:

Assault/abuse by staff

Conditions of confinement

Confinement/isolation

Disciplinary segregation

Search policies

Solitary confinement/Supermax (conditions or process)

Strip search policy

Type of Facility:

Government-run