MEDIA RELEASE: Settlement reached in Shoatz v. Wetzel

Maroon after his release from solitary confinement
Maroon after his release from solitary confinement 

July 11, 2016: Pittsburgh PA —A settlement has been reached in the case of Shoatz v. Wetzel, which challenged the 22-year solitary confinement of Abolitionist Law Center client and political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz. This brings an end to litigation begun in 2013. In February 2014, following an international campaign on behalf of Shoatz, he was released from solitary confinement.

In exchange for Shoatz ending the lawsuit the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) has agreed that it will not place Shoatz back in solitary confinement based on his prior disciplinary record or activities; Shoatz will have a single-cell status for life, meaning he will not have to experience the extreme hardship of being forced to share a cell following decades of enforced isolation; a full mental health evaluation will be provided; and the DOC has paid a monetary settlement.

Russell Maroon Shoatz had the following to say about the settlement: “I have nothing but praise for all of those who supported me and my family for all of the years I was in Solitary Confinement, as well as helped to effect my release. Since joining the struggle for Human Rights in the mid 1960s, I have always chosen to fight! Frederick Douglass was right when he said ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’ So have no doubt that I see this Settlement as anything but the latest blow struck, and you rest assured that I will continue in the struggle for Human Rights. Straight Ahead!”

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Mendez, said: “This settlement is a major contribution to the quest to outlaw prolonged solitary confinement in the US and around the world. I congratulate Mr. Shoatz and his family for not giving up and his team of lawyers for a committed and highly professional approach to justice.”

Shoatz had been held in solitary confinement in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) since 1983. For 19 months between 1989 and 1991 he was held in the general population of the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. Upon return to the PADOC in 1991 he was immediately placed back in solitary confinement and held there until February 20, 2014, when he was released to the general population at State Correctional Institution Graterford, 10 months after he filed suit in Shoatz v. Wetzel.

The case challenged the more than 22 consecutive years that Shoatz spent in conditions of solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment due to the severe deprivations of basic human needs imposed on Shoatz, including mental health, environmental stimulation, social interaction, sleep, physical health, and exercise. Shoatz also challenged violations of his procedural and substantive due process rights.

As noted by Judge Eddy in her February 2016 decision ordering a trial in the case, plaintiff’s expert, psychiatrist Dr. James Gilligan, stated in his report in the case that Shoatz has spent “virtually his entire adult life in complete and coerced social isolation (and sensory deprivation) – which is among the most abnormal and pathogenic environments in which it is possible to place a human being.”

The decision also quoted United Nations Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez, who was another expert for the plaintiff:

“The conditions of detention of Mr. Russell Shoatz, in particular his indefinite solitary confinement eventually lasting 29 years, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment under customary international law standards. . . . [E]ven if isolation of inmates is not per se contrary to those practices, indefinite or excessively prolonged regimes of solitary confinement like the one suffered by Mr. Shoatz certainly do. In addition to the excessive duration and indefinite nature, his isolation contradicts the trend of all civilized Nations in that it was imposed on the basis of status determinations unrelated to any conduct in his part, and through a meaningless procedure that did not afford him a serious chance to challenge the outcome.”

Shoatz was released from solitary confinement after an international campaign led by his family and supporters. The campaign to release Shoatz included 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 also endorsed his release from isolation.

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 and Matt Meyer discussing Maroon at this link).

Shoatz was represented in this case by Bret Grote and Dustin McDaniel of the Abolitionist Law Center; Harold J. Engel; and Reed Smith attorneys Rick Etter and Stefanie L. Burt.


Russell Shoatz III                                       347-697-5390

Theresa Shoatz                                        267-456-7882

Bret Grote                           412-654-9070


Democracy Now! Profiles Aging Political Prisoners

Democracy Now! recently broadcast a program dealing with aging political prisoners, and the elderly prison population more generally. The program specifically discussed the cases of Lynne Stewart, the Angola 3, Seth Hayes, Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz, and Oscar López Rivera. Videos of the program are embedded below, and a transcript of the discussion can be found here.

Time for Compassion? Aging Political Prisoners Suffer From Illness, Long Solitary Confinement

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“If the Risk Is Low, Let Them Go”: Elderly Prison Population Skyrockets Despite Low Risk to Society

Panel Discussion: Solitary Confinement and Political Prisoners (Video)

National Lawyers Guild – Solitary Confinement and Political Prisoners: The Use of Prison Isolation in Policing Radical Politics. San Juan, Puerto Rico. October 25, 2013.

Moderator: Bret Grote (Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center)

Panelists: Jihad Abdulmumit (Co-chairperson of the National Jericho Movement); Clarissa López Ramos (daughter of Oscar López Rivera); Mumia Abu Jamal by recording (Journalist and Jailhouse Lawyer Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild); Azadeh Zohrabi (Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and member of legal team representing Pelican Bay prisoners).

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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.