Reporter Joseph Shapiro first met Martin Sostre after New York's governor granted the inmate clemency in 1976. The prisoner's story sparked a lifelong interest in prison activism for Shapiro, who documents for NPR his search for the long-disappeared Sostre. Shapiro dives into the early life of the self-described "street dude" from Harlem whose first bust (for drugs) in 1952 sent him to upstate New York's Sing Sing correctional facility and kicked off his tenure as a "politicized prisoner." Along with newfound knowledge he gained reading about law, black history, philosophy, and the Constitution, Sostre decided to take the hustling skills he'd gained on the streets and put them to good use fighting for prisoners' rights. He was even thrown in solitary for his push for religious concessions as a member of the Nation of Islam.
Sostre and two other inmates won a lawsuit in 1961 against a warden at another prison for denying prisoners their religious rights, setting the foundation for other inmates' suits against other correctional facilities. When Sostre was released, he opened a leftist-leaning bookstore in Buffalo, which he ran until a 1967 raid at his bookstore landed him a decades-long sentence in prison on drug charges he denied. He continued to stand up for his rights and those of other inmates, filing legal motions to protest stints in solitary and what he said were other violations. His victories earned him hero status among inmates nationwide. "No single figure played a greater role in securing legal rights for prisoners in the history of US prisons than Martin Sostre," one historian notes. More at NPR on what Shapiro found out when he tracked down Sostre's wife. (Dealing with violent child criminals in prison.)