by Bret Grote
Lawyers for Russell Maroon Shoatz submitted a communication to United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment Juan Mendez, requesting that he inquire into Shoatz’s nearly 30 years of solitary confinement within the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC). Shoatz is a 70-year-old former Black Panther Party member who has been locked in solitary confinement at various state prisons for the past 22 consecutive years and 28 of the past 30 years.
The request comes at a time when the campaign to release Shoatz from solitary confinement has been gathering increasing international attention. In August, Nobel Peace Prize laureates Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor, Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa marked the occasion of Maroon’s 70th birthday by sending a letter to PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel that read: “We also affirm, in the strongest possible humanitarian terms, that now is the time for the immediate and unconditional release from solitary confinement and restricted housing of Russell Maroon Shoatz. After decades of solitary confinement – including the past 22 consecutive years – there is no reason for further delay. Continued confinement in 23-hour-a-day isolation is nothing short of torture.”
For the last 23 years, Shoatz has had an impeccable disciplinary record and has not received one serious rule violation during this time. Despite his model behavior, advancing years and health problems, the PA DOC has refused to release this father, grandfather, great-grandfather, human rights advocate and published author into the general prison population.
“We also affirm, in the strongest possible humanitarian terms, that now is the time for the immediate and unconditional release from solitary confinement and restricted housing of Russell Maroon Shoatz. After decades of solitary confinement – including the past 22 consecutive years – there is no reason for further delay. Continued confinement in 23-hour-a-day isolation is nothing short of torture.”
“The Special Rapporteur on Torture has recently spoken out about similar instances of extraordinary long-term solitary confinement in the United States in Pelican Bay state prison and in the case of the Angola 3. Like these cases, the solitary confinement of Russell Shoatz is yet another extreme violation of international human rights standards,” said Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and one of the attorneys who submitted the document to the Special Rapporteur on Shoatz’s behalf.
Although Shoatz is still held in the solitary confinement unit, he has been permitted more out-of-cell time in recent weeks, as prison officials inform him that he is being assessed for release from isolation. On Sept. 23, 2013, Shoatz began a 60-day step-down program where he is permitted out of his cell as a block worker for approximately one hour Monday through Friday.
Although this program represents the most out-of-cell time Shoatz has been afforded since he was in federal prison in 1991 and the most in a PA DOC prison since 1983, there is no guarantee that he will eventually be released into the general population. Prison officials have stated that he will merely be considered for release after the completion of the program.
Despite his model behavior, advancing years and health problems, the PA DOC has refused to release this father, grandfather, great-grandfather, human rights advocate and published author into the general prison population.
The communication to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture was submitted by Jules Lobel; Dan Kovalik, senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers; Dustin McDaniel and Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center; and attorney Hal Engel.
The 14-page document observes that a 2011 report issued by the Special Rapporteur provided a “legal analysis … that resoundingly affirms the conclusion that U.S.-style solitary confinement units are prohibited under international law.” It called on the Special Rapporteur to “immediately initiate a prompt and comprehensive investigation into the facts surrounding Russell Maroon Shoatz’s nearly 30 years of solitary confinement in the PA DOC.”
The communication concluded by recognizing that even if he is soon released from isolation, “It is vital that the egregious violations of Shoatz’ human rights are recognized by your office and the international human rights community more broadly, both for his own sake and for the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who have been subjected to these conditions of social isolation and sensory deprivation in U.S. jails and prisons over the years.”
Bret Grote is executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a project inspired by the struggle of political and politicized prisoners and based largely on the work of the Human Rights Coalition, where Bret has worked since 2007 as an investigator, organizer and researcher. He was the Isabel and Alger Hiss Racial Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights in 2012. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh Law School in May 2013 and was recognized as the school’s Distinguished Public Interest Scholar. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Human Rights Coalition – FedUp! 5129 Pennsylvania Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15224.