Bobby Battle, a jailhouse lawyer whose 1972 lawsuit led to desegregation and landmark reforms in Oklahoma prisons, 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 lead attorney on the lawsuit.
In 1970, Battle watched as a 275-pound officer pulled a small inmate out of a disciplinary hearing, kicked him and struck him with a tear gas gun. After filing a complaint with the warden at Oklahoma State Penitentiary that May, he was sent to a subbasement known as the “dungeon.”
When the Oklahoma City native, who had a sixth-grade education, emerged two months later, he began researching and writing a lawsuit that would be deliberated for three decades and change the state’s penal system forever.
“If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else. There would have been someone else,” he told an Oklahoman reporter in 1981.
Battle died on Christmas Day, according to Pollard Funeral Homes. He will be laid to rest at a memorial service Saturday afternoon at House of Prayer on the city’s east side.
Comments on an online guestbook, including two from retired corrections officers, recalled Battle as “a man who stood up and paid the price,” an activist who “spoke for those who had no voice” and “will always be remembered for changing the criminal justice system for the better.”
Jones received a call from Muskogee one day in 1972. It was a federal judge informing him that 20 inmates had written lawsuits in Oklahoma, alleging rights violations. The judge wanted to bundle them and wanted Jones to represent the lead plaintiff, the inmate who had written the most eloquent, well-researched lawsuit of the 20. That was Battle.
“He must have just had native intelligence, one of those people who was educated even though they have poor formal education,” Jones recalled. “Bobby just taught himself about federal civil rights and prison reform and the cases and went forward.”
In 1974, a ninth-month Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into conditions at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester found racial segregation, racial discrimination, inadequate medical facilities, unconstitutional limits on inmate mail and inadequate access to legal materials. African-American inmates were segregated, routinely assigned the worst jobs and punished for conduct that wasn’t prohibited.
Understaffing left a single guard to watch over 1,800 inmates roaming free on a prison yard. The result, according to the report, was routine assaults of inmates and illicit activity “in broad daylight.” Dangerous chemical agents were used often. Ice cubes cost 25 cents each. Female prisoners were barred from using the law library.
The Justice Department and four other inmates joined Battle’s lawsuit. On March 15, 1974, U.S. District Court Judge Luther Bohanon ruled in their favor, expressing “shock at cruelty imposed on some convicts,” The Oklahoman wrote the next day.
“Bobby was in the courtroom in Muskogee when Judge Bohanon announced his decision,” Jones recalled. “He broke out crying.”
‘He was self-educated’
When he was first interviewed by reporters that May, Battle chain-smoked cigarettes and told tales of his earliest crimes in the 1950s, his jailbreak and time as a fugitive in Illinois and Tennessee. Reporters described him as “smooth talking” and “a troublemaker.” During one interview, he dryly noted, “I haven’t always been a good guy.”
“He was well-spoken and he could write,” Jones recalled. “I mean, he was self-educated but he couldn’t stay out of trouble. I sometimes think he was more comfortable in prison than out. That was his life. In a strange way, I think he felt safe there, he felt at home there and, of course, he had done so much to change it.”
Still, he aspired for more, creating an organization behind bars called the Committee Against Prison Exploitation and dreaming of the day when he could operate a rehabilitation organization on the outside, providing jobs for newly released convicts.
In 1984, he was hired by Oklahoma County to work on its highway crew. A county commissioner, Shirley Darrell, said Battle’s attorneys were trying to convince him to sue the county jail.
“I figured the easiest way to stop that is to put him on the payroll and give him a job,” she told reporters at the time.
In 1990, he launched the “Bobby Battle Forum,” a 90-minute radio program in Oklahoma City that matched callers with social services. Many callers were what he called fellow graduates of Knucklehead College — prison.
The Battle lawsuit remained in court for three decades and became the most expensive prison lawsuit in Oklahoma history. A settlement in 1999 was tossed out by a federal judge the following year. Battle and state prison officials returned to a Muskogee federal courtroom in 2000 for hearings on medical care.
“Like Jason in the old ‘Friday the 13th’ horror flicks, the Bobby Battle case just won’t die,” one newspaper reporter quipped.
Battle remained an advocate for inmate rights, supporting legislation to restore voting rights to felons no longer under state supervision, as well as inmates in county jails awaiting trial.
In 2005, Battle’s daughter, Jasmine, filed a lawsuit claiming she was forced to live in unsanitary conditions at the Oklahoma County jail and was denied proper health care. The lawsuit was signed by the man with power of attorney over her: Bobby Battle.