Case: Sostre v. Otis

1:70-cv-01114 | U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York

Filed Date: March 1, 1970

Clearinghouse coding complete

Case Summary

This is a historic case about the receipt of mail in New York prisons, one of the Clearinghouse's  collection of cases brought by prisoners' rights activist Martin Sostre, whose wikipedia biography is here.  Martin Sostre sought an order enjoining the officers at Wallkill Correctional Facility from interfering with his receipt of literature which he ordered through the prison mail. He had been transferred to that prison in early August 1969. Sostre sued the former Walkill warden and the former …

This is a historic case about the receipt of mail in New York prisons, one of the Clearinghouse's  collection of cases brought by prisoners' rights activist Martin Sostre, whose wikipedia biography is here

Martin Sostre sought an order enjoining the officers at Wallkill Correctional Facility from interfering with his receipt of literature which he ordered through the prison mail. He had been transferred to that prison in early August 1969. Sostre sued the former Walkill warden and the former New York Commissioner of Correction in March 1970 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He sought an injunction and $20,000 in damages.

The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim and for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Judge Constance Baker Motley denied the motion on June 3, 1970, and the defendants filed an answer to the complaint on July 9, 1970.

On October 27, 1970, Sostre, proceeding pro se, moved for judgment on the pleadings. The defendants had requested that the court defer its decision pending the outcome of Sostre v. McGinnis, 442 F.2d 178, argued en banc in the Second Circuit on October 21, 1970. (Described here.)

On March 24, 1971, the New York State Department of Correction adopted a new procedure for screening publications sent to state prisoners and established a review committee as part of this new process. Two days after this change, several civil rights lawyers entered an appearance for Sostre and filed a memorandum of law in support of his motion for judgment on the pleadings. In this new memorandum, Sostre withdrew the damages claim and substituted the acting prison superintendent and the current commissioner as defendants.

In an opinion by Judge Mansfield, the court ruled for Sostre on the pleadings on June 28, 1971. The court held that the prison’s procedure for screening literature was constitutionally deficient. Under that new system, a committee of prison officials decided censorship disputes, guided by a list of criteria and with a presumption that literature should be freely available, and decisions were required to be reached within certain time limits. But the process did not give incarcerated people notice of reason for delays in receipt of literature or that they could present arguments to committee. The court reaffirmed the “constitutional right to rudimentary due process under prison conditions including (1) notice; (2) some opportunity to object (either personally or in writing), and (3) a decision by a body that can be expected to act fairly.” The court declined to provide detailed rules and procedures. 330 F. Supp. 941.

The court then detailed the problems with the process: it was ex parte without any notice given to the publisher or person who ordered it. it did not place the burden of showing that censored literature was not protected on the censors, and it appeared to permit a final decision without any judicial determination. Citing the Second Circuit opinion in McGinnis, the court concluded “that any prison regulation or practice which restricts the right of free expression that a prisoner would have enjoyed if he had not been imprisoned must be related both reasonably to advancement of justifiable purpose of prison.” That case, however, did not addressed the issue of an incarcerated person’s right to receive and read literature. The court continued on to note the benefits of a better administrative procedure: “federal courts might be relieved of jurisdiction, at least until administrative remedies had been exercised.”

In conclusion, the court did somewhat qualify its holding. It explained that prisons could impose some censorship, looking to the deference that the McGinnis opinion afforded to prison administrators. The court stayed the order for 40 days from to permit modification of the procedure in order to ensure notice and an opportunity to be heard.

We do not have additional information on the trajectory of this case after this opinion. The case is now closed.

Summary Authors

Lily Sawyer-Kaplan (6/14/2022)

Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

1:70-cv-01114

Opinion

July 28, 1971

July 28, 1971

Order/Opinion

Resources

Docket

Last updated Sept. 8, 2022, 3:03 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: March 1, 1970

Case Ongoing: No

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

Martin Sostre, a New York prisoner and activist

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Attorney Organizations:

NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: Yes

Class Action Sought: No

Class Action Outcome: Not sought

Defendants

Warden (Wallkill, Ulster), State

New York Commissioner of Correction (Albany, Albany), State

Defendant Type(s):

Corrections

Jurisdiction-wide

Case Details

Causes of Action:

42 U.S.C. § 1983

Constitutional Clause(s):

Due Process

Freedom of speech/association

Availably Documents:

Injunctive (or Injunctive-like) Relief

Non-settlement Outcome

Any published opinion

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement

Source of Relief:

Litigation

Order Duration: 1971 - None

Issues

General:

Mail

Type of Facility:

Government-run