Rattling the Bars: Black Panther Freed from Solitary (1/2)
Eddie Conway talks to the daughter of former Black Panther Russell Maroon Shoatz about the release of her father from solitary confinement after 22 years
EDDIE CONWAY, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore. And thanks for joining me in this special segment of Rattling the Bars.
Today there’s news about a political prisoner in the United States that I think should be shared with the public. And so I have with me right now Theresa Shoatz, which is the daughter of Russell Maroon Shoatz. So join me in welcoming Theresa.
How are you doing, Theresa?
THERESA SHOATZ, DAUGHTER OF RUSSELL MAROON SHOATZ: I’m OK. Thank you for having me.
CONWAY: OK. Can you give us a little overview of who your father is and why he’s a political prisoner?
SHOATZ: Well, my father was born and raised in West Philadelphia. And during the ’70s, there was really some rough times going on in Philadelphia, especially in the black communities. There was a mayor by the name of Frank Rizzo who would just come into the black communities and wreak all kind of hell.
And there was a young black male who was killed by the Philadelphia police officers. At that time, my dad had started the Unity Council in West Philadelphia, which eventually merged with the Black Panther Party. And after the killing of the young black male, the community demanded that the leaders step up and do something about it or address the issue with the Philadelphia police and Mayor Frank Rizzo. And this became a very crucial time in reference to the brutality that was going on in the black communities. And this was throughout the country.
And let me finalize that. Maroon, he didn’t want to bring any violence into this fight for his people and his community. They really wanted to work it out, because with the Black Panthers–and most everyone knows that Maroon, his members of the Black Panther Party started out with breakfast programs and educational programs when the schools then didn’t provide proper education. They would do it after school, before school. And they wanted, really, to be left alone. But it was like the more they did for their community, the more the police came down on them.
CONWAY: OK. Now, he got locked up in 1970. Is that right?
SHOATZ: Yeah. Well, he was on the run.
CONWAY: Why was he on the run?
SHOATZ: A police officer was killed in Philadelphia. And the police officer’s name was Frank Von Colln. And he was killed at 63rd and Cobbs Creek Park.
After the killing, there was a manhunt for my dad, which today we know that my dad wasn’t the trigger man. [inaud.] Russell Shoatz being hunted down, the manhunt also included four other black males. Most of the time you don’t hear about them, but early on in the ’70s, after the cop was murdered, they were known as the Philly Five. But most of the focus was on Maroon, because Maroon hadn’t been captured–he had went underground.
When he was captured, he was sentenced to life. And inside the courtroom they had sentenced him not only to life, but they had added on 500 years, 600 years. And we were left–I mean, as a kid, I was still in middle school, and I felt hopeless.
The fortunate part was that my family members–not my mother; my mother had vowed never to go inside of a prison. My mother was from the South. She didn’t have the courage that my dad had. My dad was born and raised in the North. My mother was raised in the South where you didn’t challenge the cops. And it’s sort of what split their marriage apart, because my mother couldn’t understand why my dad wanted to challenge the cops, even though the community was in an uproar.
CONWAY: Did you get to see him when you were young and he first got locked up? Did other family members get to take you in there to see him?
SHOATZ: Yes, and that’s where the hopelessness that I felt. His siblings, my aunts, they made the way for my sister, my brother Russell, and I to see my father. And I tell this story all the time. You may have heard it.
I was about nine years of age, and I had this grand vision of the prison. It was a well-kept place with huge, shiny floors, and the lawns were well kept and manicured really nicely. And I just thought Daddy had all of these men around him just working for him, the guards. I didn’t know they were there guarding the facility and keeping prisoners in line.
And it was one Christmas–I was about nine years old–my uncle James would give the kids 50 cent pieces for Christmas. And this Christmas I had vowed to send my daddy a 50 cent piece. And I mailed it to my dad, along with a stamp. I didn’t know anything about money orders and stuff of that nature. And I couldn’t wait for my dad to call. When my dad called, I said, Daddy, did you get my gift, my 50 cent piece? And he said, oh, baby girl, you can’t do that; one of my guards got it. And he didn’t say it in a manner in which he was angry or tried to get me angry. He said, oh, one of the guards may have gotten it. And I said, guards? Then it started coming into play–you know, I had to question, where is my dad? And I had vowed that day, after I hung up the phone, that I was going to get the first guard that I seen on my next visit.
And the next visit, my aunts took me to see my daddy–and they had no idea what I was going to do–and I ran as fast as I could and I kicked the first guard square in the balls. And he said, “What the hell did you do that for?” And another guard came over and said, “Did she just kick you?” And he said, “Yeah, she kicked me.” And they both picked me up, lift my arms up. Both had me by the arms.
Now, meanwhile my aunts are in the visiting room, and they didn’t even acknowledge me. They didn’t even act as if they knew me. And the guards said, “You don’t ever do that. You’re never going to see your dad.” And I said, “I don’t care,” because I got the job done. You know, I had vowed that I was going to take care the first guard that I seen who I thought might have stole my 50 cent piece from my daddy.
So they carried me outside. They placed me on a bench and said, “Now you’re not going to see your dad today either.”
And I tell this story because a kid today–today–who’s caught up in their emotions, with more women in prison today than any other time, and a child missing their parent who’s behind bars, would have been arrested, handcuffed, maybe beat up, and placed in prison. And I acted out only on my emotions.
CONWAY: Well, now, tell me this, now, ’cause I understand that your dad had actually escaped several times from the prison system during those years.
CONWAY: And he ended up in solitary confinement?
SHOATZ: Well, let’s get this straight. When my daddy escaped–I still today live across the street from the elementary school that I attended when he escaped. I hadn’t even reached the sixth grade. And the school was evacuated, but they never told us why. No one came to me and said, you know, your house is being–the door is being kicked in. The kids were evacuated to the schoolyard. No one was sent home, because the FBI, the state police, and the local police were gathered outside my door. And I noticed they were at my door. And I grabbed a hold of the fence, and I’m looking, and they had kicked in our door and they had dogs and everything. And my mother was in there, and she was a nervous wreck. They wouldn’t allow me out of the gate.
At that time, I was so embarrassed. I really didn’t have a clue at that time that my dad, what a powerful community leader he had been, and I didn’t know he was in for a cop being killed. So I was so ashamed that day of the door being kicked in and all the officers there, because, as I said earlier, at that time we were the only kids in that public school who had a father in prison.
CONWAY: Now tell me this. At that time he was part of the Black Liberation Army?
SHOATZ: Yes. He had went underground, and therefore he was going to fight and protect people in the movement.
CONWAY: OK. So after he got back in prison, I understand he started working, organizing prisoners for their human rights and other things. And that’s really what landed him in solitary confinement this last time?
SHOATZ: Yes, that’s what really landed him in. And it wasn’t until Maroon Implacable, the book, was written and released. And I did a book tour for my dad. I had to quit my job. I used to work in the school district. And a prisoner wrote me, George /ˈbroʊkwər.ʃɑmˈbeɪ/. And he said, you’re fighting this all the wrong way. And I said, what do you mean? And I gave him my phone number to call me. And he said, your daddy isn’t in solitary confinement for the two escapes; he said, he’s in solitary confinement because he became the first black president of a all-white, prison-approved lifers group. I said, I’ve never heard that. And he said, yeah, that’s why. I said, but why would that land him in solitary confinement? He said, if you remember, your daddy was brutally beat after every escape. He was tortured. He was kept in the hole–what they now fashionably call solitary confinement. He was kept in the hole for a certain amount of time–not indefinitely–and he was released from the hole into population.
And one day he stumbled upon a all-white group, lifers having a meeting. And he went inside. He opened the door and the guard told him, you’re not supposed to be in here, but they allowed him in. And Daddy started explaining to them that we’re all in here for some reason–maybe not the same, not on the level that I am, but let me educate you about this prison system and about this system in general. And by the end of the meeting, Maroon had become the president.
CONWAY: Well, now, how many years ago was that? Because I understand he’s been on solitary confinement for over twenty-some years.
SHOATZ: Yes. What happened is you’ll read where some writers will say he’s been in solitary confinement almost 30 years. And when you include time spent in the hole, when it wasn’t called solitary confinement, it was around 28 years he had spent.
Now, Maroon has been in prison more than 40 years. So when he was out this time, when he was in population after one of the escapes, once he became the president of this all-white lifer group–which he shouldn’t have been–the warden got wind of him becoming president and said, take back the vote; we will not have a black guy in charge of this white lifers group, or I’ll shut the whole group down. Well, the white prisoners said, no, we want him as our president. They eventually went on a hunger strike and tried suing the prison. Well, the warden, seeing that this could go another way–here’s these white prisoners; they want this guy as their leader–he said, I have to get rid of him. That was at SCI Pittsburgh. Daddy was transferred and placed in the hole.
That’s what landed him in the hole–and he never was released from the hole until two years ago: because he became the first black president of the all-white lifers group at SCI Pittsburgh.
CONWAY: OK. Now, I understand he just–and we’re going to probably have to revisit this in another segment–I understand he just won a major lawsuit against Pennsylvania prison system.
SHOATZ: Yes, yes he did. And, you know, our family have received so many congratulations, and we were thanking so many people, ’cause it wasn’t just us. Yes, we were a very dedicated family. We never gave up. I quit my job. I haven’t worked in the last ten years because my daddy will call, because he’s up in age, complaining about medical issues–cataracts, heart disease. And I would have to get on the train and go straight to the government’s office. So it took someone who wasn’t employed. My sister worked and my brother worked to help me financially; that way I could take care of my daddy.
Well, July 11, 2016, Daddy was supposed to have his day in court in reference to suing the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. The settlement came before the 11th, but Daddy said he really wanted to get up on the stand and let people know what they did to him in solitary confinement. But he didn’t get that opportunity. Early on, the judge said that daddy wouldn’t get–not one red cent, that she would pay the attorney fees.
CONWAY: OK. Let’s stop here, then, and come back for a second segment so we can look at exactly what happened with this case and how it impacts everybody else in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania.
SHOATZ: Thank you, Eddie. And I’m so glad that you’re home.
CONWAY: OK. And thank you for joining me.
SHOATZ: And I thank you as well.
CONWAY: Thanks for joining me for this first segment on the political prisoner
that had won his settlement. Please join me for the next segment.
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