Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a former Black Panther who has spent close to half his life in solitary confinement, might want to pace his cell while anticipating his release to the general prison population. But there’s no room for that in a 7-foot-by-12-foot room.
Shoatz (whose real name is spelled Shoats) has been held for more than 20 consecutive years, and almost 30 years in total, in what is blandly termed “administrative custody” — long-term solitary confinement that is justified, according to prison administrators, by security concerns. His son, Russell Shoatz III, has a different term for it: “institutionalized deprivation.” He and many others argue that solitary confinement provides a diminished and insufficient version of everything that human beings need.
Shoatz has become the subject of advocacy efforts and deomonstrations in recent years, an example for prison-system critics of the worst-case scenario within Philly's Department of Corrections. His legal team claims the DOC is now in the process of approving his release to gen-pop.
Shoatz can leave his cell to exercise for an hour every day in a sort of cage, his son explains. He can see his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren but can’t hug them: the one-hour non-legal visit he is allowed every week is held in a plexi-cage. He can take a shower once a week, and otherwise has to make do with the sink in his cell. His toothbrush, rag and soap are smaller than those of general-population inmates.
These conditions sustained over several years are “torturous” and violate the Eight Amendment’s protection from “cruel and unusual punishment,” his legal team argued in a civil-rights lawsuit filed in May. Moreover, they’ve been imposed on him with little transparency, they argue. Every 90 days, a “Program Review Committee” evaluates the situation of prisoners held in long-term solitary confinement. So Shoatz, who escaped from prison twice in the late 1970s, must have been deemed an escape risk consistently by over 100 review committees throughout the 28 years he’s spent in isolation. “It was just kind of a rubber-stamp process,” said Bret Grote, executive director of the newly founded Abolitionist Law Center and one of Shoatz’s attorneys.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections transferred Shoatz to a new prison, SCI Manahoy, in March. There, he was told he would soon be allowed into the general population, according to his legal team. DOC spokesperson Susan McNaughton wrote in an email “sometimes it is in the best interest of everyone to move an inmate to another institution so that ‘fresh eyes’ can review his/her behavior to determine whether long-term segregation was indeed appropriate.”
Shoatz, who was imprisoned for life in 1970 for his involvement in an attack against a police guardhouse that left one officer dead, has evolved during his time in prison, according to his son. He became a Muslim, according to his son, and conducted study sessions in the “hole,” teaching other prisoners through the vent what he’d memorized from his readings. He even published a book in April. It’s “part of his not-going-crazy in the hole exercise,” said his son.
But a 2000 U.S. Court of Appeals decision denying his appeal of solitary confinement on due process grounds described him “a remorseless sociopath knowledgeable in the workings of prisons and escape techniques.” McNaughton wrote that “we are working with Mr. Shoatz on his behavior,” but declined to explain any further.
After spending decades with no human touch except for forced contact from his guards, Shoatz also has changed in tragic ways. He’s “a real master of human behavior and how people are going to move or act,” said his son. Yet according to Grote, he’s no longer able to understand the concept of trust.
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