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Former Jailhouse Lawyer Bobby Battle Dies at Age 80

by Monte McCoin

Former prisoner Bobby Battle, an Oklahoma City native with a sixth-grade education who filed a lawsuit that ultimately led to historic reforms and the desegregation of Oklahoma prisons, died on December 25, 2017 at the age of 80.

“He must have just had native intelligence, one of those people who was educated even though they have poor formal education,” attorney Stephen Jones recalled. “Bobby just taught himself about federal civil rights and prison reform and the cases and went forward.”

In 1970, Battle was housed for two months in the “dungeon,” a subbasement area at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, after he filed a complaint with the warden about a 275-pound guard who beat a much smaller fellow prisoner. His experience led him to research and prepare a 1972 lawsuit that would continue making its way through the courts for nearly 30 years and become the most expensive prison litigation in state history.

That suit launched an FBI probe in 1974 that found understaffing, inadequate medical facilities, inadequate access to legal materials, racial segregation and discrimination, and unconstitutional limits on legal mail. The case was ultimately certified as a class-action after four other prisoners joined in, and the Department of Justice intervened. Over the years, courts ordered far-reaching reforms in Oklahoma’s prison system until, on January 26, 2001, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Burrage granted a motion to terminate the case under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. See: Battle v. Anderson, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Okla.), Case No. 72-cv-95.

While incarcerated, Battle became a civil rights activist and created an organization behind bars called the Committee Against Prison Exploitation. Following his release in 1987 he hosted a radio program, the “Bobby Battle Forum,” which helped connect callers with available community social services and advocated for voting rights for former prisoners. He called his experience in prison “Knucklehead College,” and often spoke with others who had been incarcerated. He was buried in his hometown of Oklahoma City.

“Bobby is an unsung hero. He had the guts to stand up and do the right thing,” Jones stated.

Many of the improved prison conditions that prisoners take for granted were achieved through hard-fought litigation by activist prisoners in the 1970s and 80s. Battle was one of them, and he helped effect reforms in Oklahoma prisons that continue today. 



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