Veteran Black Panther Russell "Maroon" Shoatz was released from solitary confinement into the general prison population at Pennsylvania's State Correctional Institution (SCI) Graterford Feb. 20, ending more than 22 consecutive years in solitary confinement. The news was confirmed by Maroon during a legal call with an attorney from the Abolitionist Law Center. Maroon’s son, Russell Shoatz III, said, "We are very excited that this day has finally come. My father being released from solitary confinement is proof of the power of people organizing against injustice, and the importance of building strong coalitions."
The move comes after Maroon, who turned 70 in August 2013, was transferred to three different Pennsylvania prisons in the past nine months. It marks the first time that Shoatz has been in the general prison population in the state of Pennsylvania since 1983, when he was placed in solitary confinement due to his work with the Pennsylvania Association of Lifers to abolish life-without-parole sentences. For a 17-month period between 1989-1991, Maroon was held in the general prison population at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.
Maroon brought suit in May 2013 on the grounds that he has been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, and that prison officials have deprived him of his procedural and substantive due process rights for keeping him in solitary confinement without meaningful review and on insufficient grounds. He is represented by attorneys with the Abolitionist Law Center.
On Jan. 27, US District Magistrate for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Cynthia Reed Eddy, issued a decision denying defendants' motion to dismiss in the case of Shoatz v. Wetzel. The ruling allowed Shoatz to move forward with the legal challenge to his more than 22 consecutive years in solitary confinement.
The campaign to release Shoatz from solitary confinement has also been gathering increasing international attention, including the support of five Nobel Peace Prize Laureates: Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor, Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Jody Williams from the United States, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina. Several US civil and human rights organizations endorsed his release from isolation, as well as growing number of clergy. In March 2013, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment and Punishment, Juan Mendez, called on the government "to cease the prolonged isolation of Mr. Shoat[z]." (See Democracy Now! interview with Juan Mendez and Matt Meyer discussing the case.)
Abolitionist Law Center executive director Bret Grote said after meeting Shoatz at Graterford, "My talk with Maroon today was very moving. There are no words to adequately convey the significance of his release to the general population for him and his family. This is a significant victory for a growing people's movement against solitary confinement and the human rights violations inherent in mass incarceration. If we continue to work hard and support one another in this movement, these victories could very well become a habit." (Abolitionist Law Center, Feb. 20)