National Lawyers Guild Panel on Political Prisoners & Solitary Confinement

SAN JUAN, Oct 25 2013 – The struggle against the torture of solitary confinement is an urgent necessity in building liberation movements in North America.  That was the message conveyed to attendees of a major panel on political prisoners and solitary confinement at the National Lawyers Guild’s annual convention held in San Juan, Puerto Rico on October 25, 2013.

Organized by the Abolitionist Law Center and the NLG Mass Incarceration Committee, the panel featured Jihad Abdulmumit, former Black Liberation Army political prisoner and national co-chair of the National Jericho Movement to Free Political Prisoners; Clarisa López Ramos, daughter of Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera; political prisoner and world-renowned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal via recorded statement; and Azadeh Zohrabi, California attorney for Pelican Bay prisoners.

Unfortunately, Dr. Luis Nieves Falcón could not be on the panel as planned due to health issues, but there was an unexpected panelist when Edwin Cortes, Puerto Rican political prisoner freed by President Clinton in 1999, grabbed the mic.

Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center moderated the panel and also spoke about the campaign to end the nearly 30 years of solitary confinement for Russell Maroon Shoatz.

Systemic and severe violations of international human rights law are an endemic—and suppressed—feature of prison conditions in the United States.  During the last thirty years the United States has embarked upon a project of race- and class-based mass incarceration unlike anything the world has ever seen.  Emerging in this same period has been the regime of super-maximum security prison units, where people are held in solitary confinement between 22-24 hours a day, seven days a week, often for years on end.  These units are defined by extreme restrictions on visitations, phone calls (which are often prohibited), incoming and outgoing mail, limits on in-cell legal and personal property, and prohibitions on cell decorations.  Medical neglect, physical and psychological abuse, food deprivation, racism, and other human rights violations flourish in these conditions, which are effectively hidden from public scrutiny.  Hundreds of thousands of people cycle in and out of the psychologically toxic and emotionally harmful conditions of solitary confinement every year, with more than 80,000 people held in 23-24 hour lockdown on any given day in jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers.

The speakers presented an inspiring and diverse set of stories, insights, and ideas to the 130-150 people in attendance.  Jihad Abdulmumit urged the crowd to recognize the context of struggle when discussing political prisoners in the United States, rather than fixating on the question of guilt or innocence.  After all, nobody ever asked if Nelson Mandela participated in the armed struggle (he did, of course), but instead recognized that he was fighting for the freedom of his people.  The same standards should apply to freedom fighters held in the belly of the imperial beast.

Bridging the struggles of the Black Liberation Movement and the Puerto Rican Liberation Movement was the commentary of Mumia Abu-Jamal.  Articulating how the pathology of white supremacy infected early 20th-century U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence regarding Puerto Rico, Mumia traced the arc of struggle of generation after generation of Puerto Ricans in and out of U.S. prisons, as part of their efforts to free their homeland from the crime of colonialism.

Clarisa López Ramos presented a moving account of the anguish and hardship that solitary confinement imposes on the families of prisoners.  She spent many hours of her childhood building a relationship with her father, Puerto Rican political prisoners Oscar López Rivera, through the glass partition of the non-contact visiting booth in the United States Penitentiary at Marion, the prototype for supermax prisons.

Next, Azadeh Zohrabi laid out a brilliant overview and analysis of the prisoner human rights movement in California, which has been led by visionary prisoners held in the Pelican Bay State Prison control units.  Her call to “abolish” solitary confinement elicited a powerful round of applause from the audience.  Noting that she views the prisoners she represents in a class action lawsuit more as her colleagues than her clients, Azadeh enlisted dozens of audience members to assist with advocacy on behalf of the health care needs of men still suffering the effects of the most recent California prisoner hunger strike, which included more than 30,000 prisoners at its peak.

Edwin Cortes then joined the panelists after being introduced by Jihad, who he served time with at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.  Cortes emphasized the importance of recognizing that the Obama presidency represents the “same old racism” with a different face, urging those in attendance to continue the struggle for liberation.

Finally, Bret Grote discussed the case of Russell Maroon Shoatz, Pennsylvania political prisoner who is represented by the Abolitionist Law Center in his efforts to be free from nearly 30 years of isolation, including the last 22 years consecutively.  Grote emphasized the structural role of solitary confinement, observing that solitary is used to terrorize the prison population; the prison population is then used to terrorize poor communities in general and communities of color in particular; socio-economic conditions in these communities are used to keep the middle classes in line; and these classes carry out the social, economic, and political agendas of the powerful few who control society.

If the feedback received by the ALC is any indication, those in attendance at the panel left better prepared and inspired to move the struggle against this system forward.

Action Alert – Demand an end to Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson’s 34 years in solitary confinement

 Call and write PA DOC Secretary Wetzel today: 717-728-4109; 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050

 Cetewayo – A case of 34 years in the hole

 Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson is a politicized prisoner who has been held in solitary confinement by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) since 1979.

Despite his exemplary disciplinary record of the past 25 years, and his recently turning 61 years old, Cetewayo continues to be subjected to 23-24-hour lockdown in solitary confinement with its attendant austerity, monotony, and deprivations. He has not had human contact with anybody except prison guards in over 30 years.

This is far and away one of the worst cases of state torture in this country – and that is saying something. Decades of social isolation and sensory deprivation is unfathomable, unconstitutional, and in violation of international human rights standards.

On October 3, 2013, Cetewayo had his annual review hearing at SCI Frackville, where officials assess whether to continue his solitary confinement. The final decision will be made by Secretary John Wetzel, so we are asking people to contact his office TODAY and demand an end to the torture.

Call/Write to: PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel, 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050; Phone number: 717-728-4109; Fax: 717-728-4178

Additional background and Talking Points for Action Alert:

Convicted of homicide and sentenced to life without parole in 1971 when he was 18 years old, Cetewayo soon developed a close relationship with imprisoned members of the Black Liberation Movement. As happened to so many of his generation who took up the struggle for human rights, Cetewayo became a target for severe state repression.

Cetewayo was accused of being involved in nine attempted escapes from 1977 to 1987, although several of these were likely fabrications engineered by prison officials. Cetewayo never got off prison grounds or escaped custody during any of these alleged attempts.

After these escape attempts his disciplinary record has been exemplary, receiving less than a handful of misconducts for minor rule violations in the last quarter-century. There have been no allegations of – or actual – escape attempts since 1987.

Human rights begin at home. Cetewayo’s case represents a challenge to human rights activists that is long overdue. Ending the torture and repression of political and politicized prisoners is a core part of rebuilding a mass human rights movement within the U.S.

Support the call to release Cetewayo from solitary confinement!

Talking Points

1)   Use his government name (Arthur Johnson) and prison ID #AF3457.

2)   Arthur Johnson has been a model prisoner for a quarter-century, receiving only minor misconducts during this time.

3)   There is no justification for such prolonged solitary confinement. It violates international human rights standards, is cruel and unusual punishment, and is increasingly recognized as torture.

4)   Solitary confinement is not necessary to prevent escapes, which are extremely rare in the PA DOC anyway.

5)   Many prisoners have been successfully transitioned from long-term solitary confinement without incident, and older prisoners are far less likely to present disciplinary problems.

6)   Even if SCI Frackville does not recommend Johnson for release to the general population, Secretary Wetzel has an obligation to overrule the institution and to respect Johnson’s constitutional and human rights.


Thirty-four consecutive years in solitary is more than long enough!

DEMAND that Cetewayo be placed in general population IMMEDIATELY!

Call/Write to: PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel, 1920 Technology Parkway, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050; Phone number: 717-728-4109; Fax: 717-728-4178

The U.S.’s 64-Square-Foot “Torture Chambers”

By Pam Johnson

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 19 2013 (IPS) – He has not had human contact or a good night’s sleep in nearly three decades. Every single day, he wakes to the sound of metal doors clanging open and a pair of disembodied hands pushing a tray of food through a slot into his 64-square-foot cell.

For the next 23 hours, he will stare at the same four walls. If he is lucky, he’ll be escorted, shackled at his ankles and wrists, into a “yard” – an enclosure only slightly larger than his cell – for an hour of solitary exercise.

This is how Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a prisoner in the restricted housing unit at the State Correctional Institute (SCI) Frackville in northern Pennsylvania, has spent the past 22 consecutive years.

On Thursday, Shoatz’s lawyers submitted a communication to Juan E. Mendez, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, urging him to inquire into why a “father, grandfather and great grandfather” is being held in extreme isolation despite having a near-perfect disciplinary record for over 20 years.

Read the rest here

Lawyers for Russell Maroon Shoatz submit request to UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

October 17, 2013: Pittsburgh PA — Lawyers for Russell Maroon Shoatz submitted a Communication to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture – Fall 2013, 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 on 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.

“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 attorney 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 September 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.

The communication to the UN 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’s 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.”

Five Things You Need to Know About Solitary Confinement


NEW YORK/PITTSBURGH — By Bret Grote and Kanya D’Almeida. This article was first published by Ecosocialist Horizons

Stop the average person on the street in any major city in the United States and ask them if they were aware that for 60 days this summer scores of U.S. citizens were on a sustained hunger strike; the vast majority will tell you they had no idea. Continue reading “Five Things You Need to Know About Solitary Confinement”