Russell Maroon Shoats, a former Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army member who has been incarcerated in PA prisons for almost 40 years is a prominent example of a political prisoner targeted for repression via placement in long-term solitary. Maroon has been held in the hole for more than twenty years and has not had a misconduct citation during that time. Although it is true that he escaped in the late 70s and early 80s, prison officials have told supporters and family that he is being kept in solitary because he is an organizer and a leader.
Andre Jacobs and Carrington Keys, two members of a group of prisoners known as the Dallas 6, have been held in solitary for approximately 11 and 9 years respectively as a result of their speaking out against torture and other human rights violations inside PA's control units.
Damont Hagan is another who has been continually targeted for his outspokenness, including a recent incident where he was assaulted and placed in a cell with nooses at SCI Huntingdon. He was recently held in the solitary units at SCI Cresson, a prison that the Justice Department has announced an investigation into, in part due to the guard-encouraged suicide of John McClellan in May 2011.
Caine Pelzer, Ravanna Spencer, Rhonshawn Jackson, Michael Edwards, Jerome Coffey, Andre Gay, Kerry Shakaboona Marshall, and countless others have been thrown into solitary for the sole purpose of breaking their spirit. Look them up on the PA DOC inmate locator and send them a letter.
Regarding race, the disparities within the solitary confinement population may be the most extreme in the entire criminal legal system, which is saying a lot. We do not know the exact figures because the demographics are not public, but reports of solitary units overwhelmingly comprised of people of color in PA prisons are common.
Over the last thirty-plus years there has been a national trend of warehousing those with mental health needs inside prisons. These people often end up in prison because of their difficulties in adapting to life outside the walls, often because of experiences of childhood trauma and substance abuse, and their challenges in navigating social life is even more difficult inside the walls. The stresses of prison can lead to them getting in trouble with prison authorities due to an inability to follow the rules, which leads them to solitary, which leads to a worsening of their underlying psychological state. This cycle of dysfunction is a normative feature of prison systems across the U.S.
This nexus of retaliation, racism, and abuse of the mentally ill is widespread in PA prisons, and there is no shortage of examples to be found by reviewing the weekly PA Prison Reports on our website.
PR: Besides solitary confinement, what other aspects of PA prisons does HRC identify as human rights violations?
BG: Some of the obvious examples include physical abuse, medical neglect, racial discrimination, and sexual violence, all of which are chronic issues in prisons within Pennsylvania and beyond. In regard to the latter, a guard at SCI Pittsburgh was recently indicted on about 100 counts related to his rape and torture of prisoners at that facility. This is also being investigated by the Justice Department. This story has been suppressed in the national media, a phenomenon commented on by Mumia (1, 2), in what can only be understood as yet another example of the corporate media's complicity in enabling torture in U.S. prisons.
Of course, race-based policies of mass incarceration violate the human right of equality under the law and the right to be free from racial discrimination. Michelle Alexander refers to this aspect of the U.S. prison nation as "the new Jim Crow." Under international law it is known as apartheid, and it is prohibited under the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The United States has never signed or ratified the convention for reasons that should be obvious enough.
Pennsylvania is the world leader in another egregious human rights abuse: sending children to prison for the rest of their lives. There are more than 400 people in PA prisons who were sentenced for crimes allegedly committed when they were younger than 18. In this state, life means life, an utterly despicable practice that makes a cruel mockery of any pretense that the society we inhabit is humane, enlightened, or fair.
Also of great importance in any discussion of the criminal legal system is the series of laws that enable "legal" discrimination against formerly incarcerated people, prohibiting them from obtaining access to food, housing, employment, stripping people of their right to vote in many states (though not PA) and setting them up for a life of poverty that guarantees high recidivism rates. This should be understood as a matter of deliberate policy, as it has been going on so long that it cannot plausibly be an unintended consequence of an otherwise sound system.
The system works to violate human rights in such a comprehensive manner, from the socio-economic conditions that give rise to property and drug crimes and related acts of violence to the damaging and anti-human conditions inside the walls, and then to be released into a life of second-class status, enforced poverty, and political disenfranchisement, that it is hard to see how it is "legal' in anything but pretense.
PR: How is Human Rights Coalition working with PA prisoners and their families to improve conditions for PA prisoners?
In Pittsburgh and Philly we have weekly letter-writing to prisoners nights. Visit our website (Pittsburgh or Philly) to learn more and email us at Email address removed or Email address removed . We are constantly receiving phone calls and emails from people looking to advocate for their loved ones. In 2011 we initiated a Political Action Committee in order to be better organized through the building of a membership base and engaging in consistent acts of advocacy, education events, and building other campaigns. The PAC is in real need of some committed organizers to help us build momentum.
One of the campaigns we've been increasingly involved with here in Pittsburgh is Decarcerate PA, which was started in Philadelphia. While the broader vision is to push for decarceration -- shrinking the prison population, closing prisons, redirecting social resources to programs that care for people and communities -- the immediate objective is to push back against planned prison expansion. The state of Pennsylvania is sinking some $685 million into building two new prisons and expanding a host of others. If more people are continually sent into these hellholes, then our efforts to improve conditions in any given situation will be futile.