Solitary Confinement is “Torture:” The Forthcoming Seminal Trial of Political Prisoner Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz

Story Transcript

JARED BALL, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

On February 12 of this year, an important but overshadowed ruling by the Western Pennsylvania U.S. District Court said that the 22 consecutive years spent in solitary confinement by former Black Panther Party member and current political prisoner Russell Shoatz deserves, and will receive, its own trial. To discuss this potentially groundbreaking ruling, forthcoming trial, and the man about whom all of this is happening, is his attorney and legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, Bret Grote.

Bret, welcome back to the Real News.

BRET GROTE: Thanks, Jared.

BALL: So if you would, just again, briefly remind our audience who Russell Shoatz is, why he is a political prisoner, and how he has ended up involved in this potentially seminal case and ruling.

GROTE: Sure. Russell Shoatz became involved with the Black liberation movement in the 1960s. He joined the Black Panther Party and was also a part of the Black Liberation Army. He was incarcerated in 1972 for the homicide, his alleged role in the homicide of a Philadelphia police officer and sentenced to life without parole.

In 1977 he performed his first liberation from prison, escaping, and he was not captured for 27 days. In 1980 he again escaped from prison and this time was out for three or four days. After this second escape in 1980 he was referred to by somebody else he was incarcerated with as Maroon, and that is the moniker that he has picked up and how he is known by friends and families and others around the world now.

BALL: And if we can, just for those who may not be aware, maroon refers to the enslaved Africans who would escape throughout, well, actually, even on the continent, but throughout the western hemisphere, escaped enslavement, set up the autonomous societies and be engaged in all kinds of, what I guess would be called, considered terrorism against slaveholders and plantations. But, I’m sorry, please continue.

GROTE: Absolutely. And Maroon, at that time, wasn’t familiar with the history of maroon societies, and he began an intensive study of that history and has since referred to it in his own political writings.

In 1980 he was captured. He was placed in solitary confinement, where he remained for two or so years until he was released in 1982 to the general population of SCI Pittsburgh. At this time he decided that he was going to try a different approach to getting himself and others out of prison, and that was to abide by prison regulations and abide by the law, but organize with other lifers in the institution to work with their families, community members and human rights advocates to appeal to the Pennsylvania legislature to repeal life without parole sentences.

At that time the Lifers Association at the prison in Pittsburgh consisted of five or six people who did very little, nothing specifically for the interests of lifers. After Maroon got involved, the participation shot up to over 100 people who were attending meetings, and they were becoming quite politicized. This terrified prison officials, and on the night that the then-president of the Lifers Association was impeached and Maroon was made the interim president, he was thrown in solitary confinement. This was in the spring of 1983.

And within the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections he remained in solitary confinement from the spring of 1983 until February of 2014. There was a 19-month stint between 1989 and 1981 where he was housed in the general population of the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. There was an uprising at another Pennsylvania prison so the state sent a number of people to the federal system for temporary confinement.

Upon his return to Pennsylvania he was placed right back in the hole, and that is where he spent more than 22 consecutive years. In March, no, in May of 2013 we brought a lawsuit under the 8th and 14th Amendment challenging his long-term, indefinite solitary confinement, and several months later, in February of 2014, he was finally released to the general population a few months after his 70th birthday, and that is where he remains today at the state correctional institution at Graterford, Pennsylvania.

BALL: So you all have won this ruling that will grant a trial around this long-term, prolonged, 22-year consecutive solitary confinement, where officials, and part of what has been written about this case, perhaps you can elaborate on that, is that solitary confinement has been defined officially, at least by some, as torture. If you could explain a little bit about that, how that relates to this case, and then tell us anything else we need to understand about, again, the seminal nature of this ruling and the forthcoming trial.

GROTE: Right. So the constitutional standard under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment is that prison officials cannot be deliberately indifferent to conditions of confinement that deprive prisoners of basic human needs. We alleged and produced substantial evidence that 22 years of solitary confinement constituted deprivation of several basic human needs of Maroon’s, including environmental stimulation, social interaction, mental health, his physical health, sleep. And the judge said that there was sufficient evidence in the record so that the defendants were not entitled to some re-judgment.

The judge also quoted from one of our expert witnesses, Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, who opined that Mr. Shoatz’ long-term solitary confinement was a violation of the United Nations’ convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishments. That was something [we’re] particularly pleased was quoted in the case, because the US judiciary, like the rest of the US political class, is very reluctant to make an understatement about recognizing the relevance of international human rights.

The significance of the case is that, while there’s been a lot of movements against solitary confinements lately, a lot of it catalyzed by the massive hunger strike led by prisoners at the Pelican Bay prison in California, the legal holdings and the reform efforts have largely focused on so-called vulnerable populations: individuals with mental health issues, developmental disabilities, pregnant women and children.

And while solitary confinement is torture when imposed upon those individuals, it is also torture to impose it on people who don’t have any of those pre-existing vulnerabilities. If you are held in a steel and cement bathroom with limited-to-no windows and extreme restrictions on your ability to communicate with others, it unfailingly has severely debilitating effects on one’s psychological health and one’s ability to function in the world.

So this is the first case that will be going to trial challenging solitary confinement based on the durational aspect, how long that it has lasted. Up until now courts have been consistently of the opinion that solitary confinement’s not unconstitutional per se. It can be unconstitutional if imposed on somebody who is particularly vulnerable. But there have only been four cases, to my knowledge, at least four cases in which the incarcerated person had counsel, that have challenged solitary confinement on a long-term basis.

There’s the Pelican Bay case, which recently resulted in a landmark and historic settlement. There was the case of the Angola Three, which had a favorable ruling on the summary judgment stage to go to trial back in 2007, but there has not been a trial on that case, and there was a case involving a federal inmate, Thomas Silverstein, that lost at the summary judgment stage. The federal judge [was] saying that his detention of 30-plus years, and he was currently at the ADX Supermax in Florence, was constitutionally permissible.

BALL: And Bret, we only have a few moments left, but I did want to have you respond, very briefly, to what some of the prison officials have been saying about Shoatz’ case and situation, and his prolonged solitary confinement, where they’ve acknowledged, I mean, for those of us who are concerned about the issue of political imprisonment and work to maybe do some form of battle with the propaganda against even the notion of US political prisoners, the prison officials here stated openly that part of what Shoatz was being punished for was, or is, rather, his continued political activism, his political views of the world today, and of course his past involvement with the Black Panther Party.

Could you just say a word or two, briefly, about what that means in terms of this understanding of political imprisonment and this continued struggle around the prolonged and continued imprisonment of all these formerly active radical activists?

GROTE: Yeah, absolutely, although they didn’t exactly state it openly. These were documents that were produced in 2010 and 2012 at State Correctional Institution Greene when there was a secret review of his solitary confinement status by prison officials. So, whenever Maroon would go in front of the body that was supposed to assess the appropriateness of his solitary confinement, all that he was ever told was the reason was that he was an escape risk if he wasn’t in solitary confinement, but it was very clear from the documents we obtained in discovery, which had been withheld from Maroon, that they did not feel that he was capable of climbing, scaling their fences, to use the words of one official, and his adhering to the same, they called militant ideology and association with people who were part of the Black Panther Party, and his ability to influence others was the primary reason that they did not want to release him into the general population.

And these documents provided evidence to what everybody that knows how the prison system operates, and everybody that knows about Maroon in particular, understood to be the case, that Maroon was being held in solitary confinement not simply to suppress his organizing ability or his influence with others, and his leadership, but to send a message to others in the institution. And defendant Louis Folino, who is the superintendent at SCI Greene, acknowledged as much when he testified in deposition that he was concerned of the message that it would send to other prisoners if Maroon were released to the general population.

During this 22-plus-year period, keep in mind, he did not receive one misconduct for rule violation, and it is not difficult to get a misconduct in prison, including for such things as unauthorized group activity or any of the other type of behaviors that, you know, he was, they were so fearful of as a result of his political activism. And during this time Maroon’s main political activism was encouraging people who were incarcerated to work with their families to advocate for the human rights of those who are incarcerated and to build a movement against mass incarceration, and to link the struggles between mass incarceration and political imprisonment.

And this really gets to what the function of solitary confinement as I’ve been explaining it for a number of years, now, which is: the primary function of solitary confinement is to terrorize the prisoner population in order to keep them in line. And the prisoner population, in turn, is used to terrorize communities of color in this country in particular, in poor communities more generally.

If you step out of line the government has a place for you. And the socioeconomic conditions in those communities are used to keep the middle classes in line. If you’re dysfunctional to the system of profit then you will go down the hierarchy, and those middle classes carry out the agenda of the people who own the country. And that, in a very concise and no doubt oversimplified nutshell, is the system of state power and terror that is used to keep people in line in order to keep the American empire’s domestic base functioning as the people who own the system thinks that it must.

BALL: Well Bret Grote, thank you for your work and for joining us here at the Real News Network. We appreciate all you efforts, and we’ll look forward to continuing to help cover them as you move forward into this forthcoming trial.

GROTE: Thanks so much, Jared. Appreciate your efforts as well.

BALL: And thank you all for joining us, wherever you are. Again, for all involved here in Baltimore, I’m Jared Ball saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

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