A former inmate named Bobby Battle whose landmark 1972 rights lawsuit led to a reform of the Oklahoma prison system died this week at the age of 80.
“Bobby is an unsung hero. He had the guts to stand up and do the right thing,” said Stephen Jones, the main attorney in Battle’s suit.
According to TulsaWorld.com, Battle first encountered the gross injustices of incarceration in 1970. He watched as a 275-pound guard dragged a diminutive inmate from a disciplinary meeting, kicking and beating the man with a tear gas gun.
Battle, trying to be responsible, filed a complaint with the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in May of that year. Soon after, he was sent to a sub-basement called “the dungeon.”
When he was finally released two months later, Battle took to the books. His research and written complaints kicked off a lawsuit that wouldn’t be resolved for another three decades.
Even though Battle had never progressed past the sixth grade, attorneys remembered his suit as being comprehensive, articulate, and well-prepared.
“It was a well-argued document. It had lots of facts and specifics in it. He had some case law. Bobby was a smart man,” recalled Jones. “He wasn’t formally educated, but he had kind of an innate […] sense of knowing something wasn’t right.”
“He was an important part of Oklahoma history and little known.”
Partially in response to Battle’s then-fledgling lawsuit, a 1974, 9-month investigation into conditions at Oklahoma State Penitentiary found evidence of racial discrimination, racial segregation, inadequate medical facilities, “unconstitutional limits on inmate mail and inadequate access to legal materials.”
For African-American inmates like Bobby Battle, life was often much worse. They were kept away from the general population of whites, forced into the worst jobs and regularly punished for infringing on imaginary infractions.
And the prison system, it turned out, wasn’t doing a great job managing itself. Chronic understaffing left a handful of guards patrolling populations of 1,800 inmates. Convicts would roam free through the yard, assaulting enemies and engaging in illegal activity “in broad daylight.” Dangerous chemicals, writes News Oklahoma, were used to quell riots. The cost of simple luxuries like ice cubes were inflated ridiculously.
Women in state lock-ups weren’t even allowed to access law libraries.
Bobby Battle’s three-decade lawsuit wound up being the most expensive prison rights lawsuit in Oklahoma history.
After being released from Oklahoma State, Battle continued to advocate for inmates.
He died Monday in Midwest Hospital after suffering a bout of pneumonia.