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.