JURIST Podcast Interviews ALC on First and Eighth Amendment Rights in the Prisons


Representatives from the Abolitionist Law Center joined JURIST podcast moderator Ian Everhart to discuss their efforts at reform in the Pennsylvania criminal justice and prison system in this episode. ALC Executive Director Bret Grote and ALC staff attorney Dustin McDaniel shared information about their organization, the mission of which is to abolish “class and race based mass incarceration in the United States.”

Grote and McDaniel shared information about Russell Maroon Shoatz, currently a plaintiff in a case filed by the ALC against the state prison system. Shoatz was convicted of homicide in the 1970s, escaped from prison twice and was placed in solitary confinement after he became involved with a prisoners’ rights movement as an inmate. Grote and McDaniel argue that the state prison system’s treatment of Shoatz, who has now spent decades in solitary confinement with no history of disciplinary problems, is unconstitutional. The ALC is currently raising funds for this and other solitary confinement cases.

Grote and McDaniel also discussed a case involving inmates’ First Amendment rights to receive news and other material related to prisoners’ rights. Holbrook v. Jellen challenges the way prison censors restrict mail sent to inmates; in particular, they object to the prison officials’ determination that certain politically-oriented documents are likely to encourage disruptions among the prison population.

Federal court rules litigation can proceed in Shoatz v. Wetzel

MEDIA RELEASE: Federal court rules litigation can proceed in Shoatz v. Wetzel

Defendants’ motion to dismiss denied on all counts

January 27, 2014: Pittsburgh PA —  On Monday, January 27, United States 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 allows Russell Maroon Shoatz to move forward with the legal challenge to his more than 22 consecutive years in solitary confinement.

Shoatz 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 U.S. 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.

Quoting the federal court ruling in the case of Wilkerson v. Stalder (aka the Angola 3 case), Judge Eddy observed that “[a]ny person in the United States who reads or watches television should be aware that lack of adequate exercise, sleep, social isolation, and lack of environmental stimulation are seriously detrimental to a human being’s physical and mental health.” She found that “The duration of Plaintiff’s solitary confinement has continued for a sufficient length of time that relief on his Eighth Amendment claim is plausible.”

The court also held that Shoatz stated a plausible claim that his right to procedural due process was violated by insufficient notice of when he is reviewed, the actual reasons for his continued solitary confinement, and what he must do in order to be released to the general population.

Finally, the court held that Shoatz stated a plausible claim that his substantive due process rights were being violated by conduct that – if proven – would “shock the contemporary conscience.” Here Shoatz alleged that continuing to hold him in solitary confinement on the irrational basis that he is an escape risk, despite being a 70-year-old man with an array of medical issues,  demonstrated a deliberate indifference to his due process rights which was conscience-shocking.

The decision comes approximately two weeks after Shoatz was transferred for the third time in 9 months – this time to State Correctional Institution (SCI) Graterford in southeastern Pennsylvania. Prior to the transfer, Shoatz had successfully completed a 60-day step-down program at SCI Frackville. Although Shoatz has been given reassurances he will be placed in the general population soon, he currently remains in solitary confinement.

The campaign to release Shoatz from solitary confinement has 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 U.S. civil and human rights organizations have already endorsed his release from isolation, as have a 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 discussing Maroon at this link).

Shoatz is represented by Reed Smith attorneys Rick Etter and Stefanie L. Burt; Bret Grote and Dustin McDaniel of the Abolitionist Law Center; Daniel Kovalik of the United Steelworkers; and retired partner from Reed Smith, Hal Engel.

Shoatz v. Wetzel – Denial of Motion to Dismiss

Contact:             Bret Grote                        bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org             412-654-9070


Funds Needed to Continue Working to End Long-Term Solitary Confinement

About Our Work

A prisoner held in solitary confinement lives in a 9×7 room with no human contact for 23-24 hours a day. These conditions are generally believed to cause serious mental illness and emotional suffering, particularly as the duration of solitary confinement increases. A recent Department of Justice investigation of Pennsylvania’s use of solitary confinement found that it was causing prisoners to suffer a range of serious mental disorders, which in turn caused many prisoners to engage in self-mutilation or attempt suicide. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has stated that solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 days is cruel and unusual punishment and possibly torture. There are currently over 2,000 prisoners being held in solitary confinement in the Pennsylvania prison system. Many of these prisoners are held in solitary confinement for years, and sometimes for decades.

The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) was founded in February 2013, with the goal of ending human rights abuses in the Pennsylvania prison system. We believe that prolonged solitary confinement is one of the most severe human rights abuses inside the prison walls. We are working to put an end to it by advocating for the release of those who have been in solitary confinement for the longest, and by educating the public more generally about these human rights abuses. Donations to this fundraising campaign will help us accomplish these goals, and can be made via Paypal or at our Indiegogo page. 

Extreme Cases of Solitary Confinement

We are currently suing Pennsylvania Department of Corrections officials on behalf of our client, Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz, who is a 70 year old man who has been held in continuous solitary confinement for 22 years. Bret Grote (Executive Director of the ALC) recently discussed Maroon’s case in detail at a panel on political prisoners and solitary confinement, which can be viewed here. The case was recently profiled on Democracy Now!, as well. We are also organizing an advocacy campaign on behalf of Arthur Johnson, a 61 year old man who has been held in continuous solitary confinement for 34 years. We will be filing a lawsuit in his case too, once we raise the necessary funds. 

Success in these cases means gaining release from solitary confinement for Maroon and Arthur. However, winning their release from solitary confinement will also help free the thousands of other prisoners being held in long-term isolation by establishing administrative and legal precedents that limit the allowable duration of solitary confinement, and by creating political pressure to end the practice entirely.

What We Need

All donations are tax-deductible and will be used to pay for costs related to Arthur and Maroon’s cases. For instance, travel to meet with Maroon and Arthur costs about $250 per trip, and we generally visit them once or twice a month. Obtaining copies of important records can cost anywhere from $300 to $1,500. We need to get copies of Arthur’s prison records going back to 1979. We are also awaiting responses from the federal Bureau of Prisons and the FBI regarding Freedom of Information Act requests for Maroon’s records, which may end up costing several hundred dollars. We will have to pay between $400 and $500 to file Arthur Johnson’s lawsuit. The cost of obtaining expert witnesses and conducting depositions is difficult to estimate with any accuracy, but it will be many thousands of dollars.  

Donations will also be used to pay our full-time legal staff. Beginning in February, we will have one full-time attorney earning $500 per week. To put this in perspective, it costs taxpayers approximately $78,000 per year to hold a single prisoner in solitary confinement. It costs us less than half that amount to employ one full-time attorney for a year, and run a law office with the purpose of getting prisoners out of solitary confinement.

Raised funds will be used to pursue Maroon and Arthur’s cases, and to further educate the public about the use of solitary confinement in prisons, whether or not the fundraising goal is met. Donations may be made at our Indiegogo page, via our PayPal account, or via the mail at Abolitionist Law Center, P.O. Box 8654, Pittsburgh, PA 15221.

Other Ways You Can Help

Please share this campaign with everyone you know. Tweet it on twitter. Post it on Facebook. Email it to friends and family. As more people interact with this campaign, Maroon and Arthur’s stories will spread, which will help to accelerate the process of gaining their release from solitary confinement.

You can also support the campaign by signing up for updates on Maroon and Arthur’s cases and by responding to Action Alerts on our website. Recent Action Alerts for Maroon and Arthur are there now. Letters and phone calls to Pennsylvania prison authorities let them know that the public is increasingly concerned about this issue, and goes a long way towards getting them to take these cases seriously.

We are also planning a statewide tour in the fall to talk about Maroon’s case and the situation in Pennsylvania’s prisons more generally. Any help organizing speaking events in Pennsylvania will be greatly appreciated.

Voices from the Inside: Co-Editor of The Movement on Holbrook v. Jellen (Audio)

January 16, 2014: SCI Rockview – A statement about Holbrook v. Jellen by Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall was recently recorded by  Noelle Hanrahan and posted at Prison Radio. Shakaboona is a wrongly convicted prisoner with a juvenile life sentence, who has been incarcerated for more than a quarter of a century. He is one of many imprisoned human rights activist in Pennsylvania, and is the Co-editor of The Movement, a newsletter published by the Human Rights Coalition.

The audio segment can be listened to here: Abolitionist Law Center Files Lawsuit Over Censorship (6:31) Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall

Abolitionist Law Center files suit against PA prison officials on behalf of Robert Saleem Holbrook, Human Rights Coalition, and Professor Kristi Brian


MEDIA RELEASE: Human Rights Coalition sues prison officials for censoring political dissent and human rights advocacy

January 9, 2014: Philadelphia, PA — The Human Rights Coalition (HRC), politicized prisoner Robert Saleem Holbrook, and College of Charleston Professor Kristi Brian brought a lawsuit yesterday against several employees of the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Coal Township and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) for confiscation of mail sent to Holbrook, a co-founder of HRC currently held at SCI Coal Township.

“Today HRC is going on the offensive to fight back against prison censorship,” editor of The Movement and HRC-Philadelphia activist Patricia Vickers stated. “It is long overdue that prison officials are held to account for their attempts to silence those who speak out against this abusive system. The rights, health, and lives of our loved ones are at stake.”

The suit, Holbrook et al. v. Jellen et al., filed by the Abolitionist Law Center, details a series of confiscations of Holbrook’s mail since January 2012 that includes academic correspondence with a college professor and issues of The Movement, essays written by Angela Y. Davis and James Baldwin, a newsletter published by HRC which focuses on prison abuse, solitary confinement, and ways that prisoners’ family members can come together to challenge human rights abuses and injustice in the criminal legal system.

The content of the materials censored by SCI Coal Township and Central Office officials touch on the most vital issues of the operation of the prison system in Pennsylvania: juveniles sentenced to die in prison, deaths in solitary confinement, repression of human rights defenders inside prisons, advocacy efforts by families of prisoners, and the pervasive racism that defines the criminal legal system in Pennsylvania and the U.S. In this context, freedom of thought, speech, and association carry life or death consequences.

Plaintiff Robert Saleem Holbrook, a 39-year-old prisoner who is serving a sentence of life-without-parole for a conviction imposed when he was 16-years-old, wrote about prison censorship in an article published in October 2012, “Censorship on the Prison Plantation: Extinguishing Dissent”:

“[T]he prison mailroom supervisor at the prison I am incarcerated in (SCI Coal Township) reflexively denies all books by Black/Latino authors that provide a radical critique of prisons, as well as all publications that contain articles written by prisoners that critique prisons from an adversarial position. Every issue of the Human Rights Coalition newsletter “The Movement” has been denied by this institution, as well as informational brochures and flyers related to HRC’s advocacy on behalf of prisoners. It is not the information contained in these newsletters that the prison censor fears, because none of the material is threatening or inflammatory. What angers the censor and the prison administration is that prisoners are taking the initiative to challenge their imprisonment and conditions of confinement without apology! On the pages of these publications, prisoners are demonstrating that they possess a voice and are ensuring that their voice be heard.”

“This lawsuit challenges the ability of PA DOC officials to target political dissent and human rights defenders with arbitrary censorship,” said Bret Grote, an attorney with the Abolitionist Law Center representing the plaintiffs in the case. “The First Amendment protections at stake extend far beyond the confines of this particular case, and touch upon the daily lives of millions of people in this country who are in prison or who communicate with people in prison.”

Complaint – Holbrook et al. v. Jellen et al.

Contact:           Patricia Vickers           hrc.philly.support@gmail.com                        267-331-6001

Bret Grote                   bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org                412-654-9070