Case: Sostre v. Rockefeller

1:68-cv-04058 | U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York

Filed Date: Oct. 15, 1968

Closed Date: March 15, 1972

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Case Summary

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, whose Wikipedia bio is here.    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…

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, whose Wikipedia bio is here.   

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).

The case was then closed.

Summary Authors

Lily Sawyer-Kaplan (6/15/2022)

Documents in the Clearinghouse



Civil Docket

July 2, 1971

July 2, 1971



General Docket

U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

March 28, 1973

March 28, 1973




May 14, 1970

May 14, 1970




Sostre v. McGinnis

U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Feb. 24, 1971

Feb. 24, 1971




Last updated June 28, 2023, 3:14 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: Oct. 15, 1968

Closing Date: March 15, 1972

Case Ongoing: No


Plaintiff Description:

Incarcerated individual in New York prison

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: Yes

Class Action Sought: No

Class Action Outcome: Not sought


New York Attorney General (Albany, Albany), State

Governor (Albany, Albany), State

Defendant Type(s):



Case Details

Causes of Action:

42 U.S.C. § 1983

Constitutional Clause(s):

Due Process

Due Process: Procedural Due Process

Due Process: Substantive Due Process

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Available Documents:

Injunctive (or Injunctive-like) Relief

Any published opinion


Prevailing Party: Mixed

Nature of Relief:

Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement

Preliminary injunction / Temp. restraining order


Source of Relief:


Amount Defendant Pays: $9,300

Order Duration: 1969 - 1971

Content of Injunction:

Preliminary relief granted




Disciplinary procedures

Disciplinary segregation

Good time

Library (non-law) access

Religious programs / policies


Solitary confinement/Supermax (conditions or process)




Race discrimination

Religion discrimination



Type of Facility: