( PHOTO: Maroon's daughter, Theresa Shoatz, with Chuck D at NYC event. )
Shoatz Files Lawsuit Protesting 22 Consecutive Years in Solitary Confinement
--An interview with
Dan Kovalik and Bret Grote
By Angola 3 News
Earlier this week, on Wednesday, May 8, lawyers for Russell
"Maroon' Shoatz filed a federal lawsuit
regarding his placement in solitary
confinement for over 22 consecutive years. The written complaint, directed at
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and the
Superintendents of SCI-Greene, where Shoatz was last held, and SCI-Mahanoy,
where he was transferred to on March 28, 2013, states that this "is an action
for injunctive, declaratory and monetary relief for violations of the Eighth
and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution."
Last month, when a 30-day action campaign
calling for Russell "Maroon' Shoatz's immediate release from solitary
confinement, the campaign promised to file this litigation if Maroon had not
been transferred into general population by the morning of May 8. On Thursday,
May 9 the lawsuit was announced at a press conference was held in Pittsburgh, outside the City-County
An update released on May 1 argues that the campaign "can
already claim a victory" because "Maroon's case and his work has received more
attention over the past month that at any time during his incarceration." One
new article about Maroon was published by Solitary Watch
and co-authored by Kanya D'Almeida and Bret Grote, who is also
interviewed below. D'Almeida and Grote write that maroon's "only time in the
general prison population in the last 30 years was an 18-month stint spent at
the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth that ended in 1991." Furthermore, they
note that Maroon has had only one violation since 1989 and "his most recent
violation was in 1999, when he covered a vent in his cell that was blowing cold
air in an attempt to stay warm."
Underscoring their argument that Maroon's confinement is
politically motivated, they write that "in 1982 he was released into the
general prison population at the State Correctional Institution (SCI)
Pittsburgh. Upon return to the general population Maroon became involved with
the Pennsylvania Association of Lifers (PAL), a prison-approved organization
that was supposed to further the interests of life-sentenced prisoners" Maroon's
reputation and the respect other prisoners had for him led to a dramatic
increase in participation in the PAL. More than 100 prisoners would attend
meetings in the early part of 1983. On the night that the old leadership was
impeached and Maroon appointed interim president pending new elections, he and
other new leaders of the PAL were placed in solitary confinement. The others
were eventually released from solitary. Maroon remains in isolation to this
Other recent media coverage includes a new interview with
Maroon, published by New Clear Vision
, and conducted by Vanderbilt University
Philosophy Professor Lisa Guenther. "Ironically," Maroon writes in the
interview, "the segment of the population that presently has the most potential
to effect change in the PIC is those who usually have no direct -- bodily --
connection to this system. That is the taxpayers among the ninety nine percent.
Without their massive yearly outlays of billions in taxes (taxes they've been
bamboozled into believing serve a good purpose, but instead serve [to] keep
active a police state machine) the whole house of cards would collapse!"
Last month, in part one of our report
on Russell "Maroon'
Shoatz, we interviewed activist Matt Meyer and Maroon's daughter, Theresa
Shoatz. Here in part two, we interview activist Bret Grote and Maroon's lawyer
Dan Kovalik, taking a closer look at the lawsuit filed on May 8, the broader
use of litigation to confront human rights abuses in US prisons, and the
political economy of what Grote identifies as the "imperial police state.'
Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in
Pittsburgh. He was counsel for Maroon in his first federal case challenging his
Bret Grote is an organizer with the Human Rights Coalition,
the Executive Director of the newly founded Abolitionist Law Center, and a
member of the legal team for Russell Maroon Shoatz.
Angola 3 News: An
April 15 update reported on Maroon's transfer from SCI-Greene to SCI-Mahanoy
and accompanying statements from Secretary Wetzel that he was moved for the
purpose of eventually being transferred into general population, where he will
then, among other things, be able to physically embrace family and friends
during visits. Have there been any more developments since the April 15 update?
Dan Kovalik: Yes, on May 2, Maroon was told that he would
be released to general population within 90 days of his coming to SCI-Mahanoy,
which was March 29. Therefore, if all goes well, and with continued pressure,
Maroon could be in the general population by July.
A3N: At this
point, following the 30-day campaign, how can our readers most effectively
offer their support?
DK: We believe that continued calls and letter
writing to Secretary Wetzel, as well as letters to the editors of local
Pennsylvania newspapers could help to ensure that Maroon is finally released
into the general population.
have authorities officially justified keeping Maroon in solitary confinement
all these years?
DK: To the extent that officials have given
clear justifications for Maroon's solitary confinement, they have continued to
claim that he is somehow an "escape risk" in light of his having escaped from
prison as a much younger man three decades ago.
This claim is ludicrous on a number of levels. First,
Maroon, on the eve of 70 years old, is not in any physical condition to escape
from any prison.
Moreover, Maroon does not have the will to escape through
extra-legal means, as he did before. At this point, he wants to struggle for
his liberation through legal and legislative means. In the meantime, he wants
to be able to have human contact with others, especially his family members, as
everyone has the right to do.
are the arguments made in the lawsuit filed on May 8?
DK: This litigation involves a lawsuit in
federal court against the prison authorities alleging that Maroon's long-term
solitary confinement violates both international and domestic norms against
"cruel and unusual punishment" as that term is used in the Eighth Amendment to
the US Constitution.
We will also allege that his confinement violates his right
not to be deprived of a significant liberty interest without due process -- a
right enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.
A3N: How can
this international pressure influence a country as powerful as the US, who has
been openly violating international law for decades by repeatedly invading
other nations without UN sanction, including the recent case of Iraq?
DK: The US, while certainly powerful, has at
times proven itself susceptible to the demands of world opinion.
One notable example, which I think few realize, is the US'
relationship with Latin America. It was not long ago that the U.S. would send
in the Marines to overthrow populist governments that it opposed (for example,
in the Dominican Republic in 1965), or launch airstrikes against non-compliant
states (for example, against Panama in 1989 in which the US killed 4,000
civilians in a working class neighborhood).
Because of mass protest in the US against such conduct, and
because of resistance in the countries of Latin America, such overtly violent
means of regime change appear off the table. I think that we collectively have
more power that we sometimes give ourselves credit for.
this type of legal action been helpful in the past in to improve conditions for
Bret Grote: Yes. For example, in federal courts in
Wisconsin and California, litigation has been successful in challenging
solitary confinement of those with mental illness or developmental
disabilities. In December, a federal court in Indiana came to the same
conclusion in a class action brought on behalf of the mentally ill in that
state's solitary units.
A strong ruling out of a Texas district court found conditions
in solitary units to be unconstitutional due to the units' "extreme
deprivations which cause profound and obvious psychological pain and suffering.
Texas' administrative segregation units are virtual incubators of
psychoses-seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness
in those already suffering from mental infirmities."
Other courts have held that procedural due process
deprivations that place prisoners in solitary without hearings or meaningful
reviews, is unconstitutional. This led to a significant reduction in Ohio State
Penitentiary's supermax population, to such an extent that prison officials
reduced the security classification in order to keep the beds filled.
In the case of the Angola 3 in Louisiana, the federal district court found
it obvious that 30 years or more of solitary confinement implicated
the Eight Amendment, and the case was ordered to go to trial. That was 6 years
ago, however, and there has yet to be a trial.
In all of these cases, it should be noted that even when
prisoners were ordered relief by the courts, prison officials have typically
found ways to keep these cells filled, whether through the application of
superficial mental health treatment procedures or by lowering the criteria for
placement in isolation. This is attributable to several factors, primary among
them the lack of political power of poor and working class people in this
country, and the judiciary's infamous complicity in enabling state violence
against oppressed communities.
A3N: You co-wrote,
with Kanya D'Almeida, an August 10, 2012 Al Jazeera News article entitled Solitary Confinement: Torture Chambers for Black Revolutionaries
While the story begins with a look at Maroon's case, it then looks at the
Angola 3 case, last year's Senate hearings on solitary in US prisons, and
beyond. While Torture Chambers argues that the topics of "race and revolution"
have been mostly left out of recent mainstream critiques of solitary in US
prisons, it does recognize the relative significance of these conversations
actually making their way beyond the smaller group of anti-prison activists
that have been fighting solitary for decades.
BG: The hearings definitely helped in raising
the profile of this issue, as the so-called "free press' usually refrains from
covering prison or human rights issues until a court filing or legislative
hearing serves as their permission slip to acknowledge the issue.
While the increased attention is welcome, no serious person
can count on the US government to meaningfully address the issue in the absence
of a powerful and growing grassroots movement that is part of a broader
challenge to the imperial prison state.
We should caution against hoping for salvation from powerful
figures in powerful institutions, and instead concentrate on building
organizational depth and capacity based on a coherent understanding of why the
U.S. ruling class has become dependent on prisons and solitary to control,
stigmatize, disenfranchise, destabilize, and otherwise neutralize poor
communities and communities of color.
role have the nation-wide prisoner hunger strikes of the last few years played in
developing today's anti-solitary movement? More broadly, what role have
prisoners themselves had in building the movement and contributing to public
discussions about the dismal state of human rights in US prisons that solitary
abuses are symptomatic of?
The importance of the hunger strikes
particular the two that originated in the Pelican Bay control units
, cannot be
overestimated. It is unlikely that there would have been any senate hearings
without that courageous, disciplined, and principled act of non-violent
resistance to torture. That act propelled the issue of torture in U.S. prisons
to a level of visibility and outrage never before seen in the last 30 years,
and has galvanized countless people across the country inside and outside the
Any reform or abolitionist movement in relation to solitary
confinement, or prisons more broadly, that does not take its vision and
leadership from current and formerly imprisoned people does not stand much of a
chance of achieving anything more than superficial reforms.
The irrepressible will to dignity and to remain human in the
teeth of terrifying and grim odds by those inside the walls is the fire and
inspiration that keeps the rest of us going. Without that, this movement is
lost. With it we can, and must, dream bigger dreams and work tirelessly to
abolish this monstrous prison state.
African American leader Malcolm X was developing his internationalist and
anti-capitalist politics in the months leading up to his February, 1965
assassination, he spoke about the need to shift from a focus on "civil rights'
to one of "human rights.' He announced further that he would be seeking
assistance from the United Nations to rectify the human rights abuses being committed
by the US government against the African American community.
At its best, how can
pressure from the international community help to rectify human rights abuses
carried out by governments? What are some recent examples of the international
community doing this about solitary confinement and other human rights
violations in US prisons?
BG: Pressure from the international community
is an effective and necessary tool for movements that aim to enforce human
rights law on the US government, which is always an uphill battle.
The best recent example of meaningful international support
for those of us fighting the federal and state governments' administrative use
of torture in prisons and jails is the report by UN Special Rapporteur JuanMendez
, who concludes that longer than 15 days in solitary confinement should be
considered a violation of the Convention Against Torture. This report is
concise and illuminating, and an important tool for prisoners and their
Furthermore, we need to collaborate with popular movements
outside the US, and to research how other countries deal with problems of drug
use and violence without burying people in concentration camps.
Ultimately, however, the people of the U.S. need to rise up
and fight back against the imperial prison state, which is also an imperial
torture state, decimating minds, bodies, and souls throughout the country on a
else to add for the interview?
BG and DK: We should always remember that torture is a
crime against humanity, and a government that engages in it on such a
widespread basis loses its claims to legitimacy.
Of course, recognizing this is but a small part of the
solution, as it will take mass organizing across many political fronts to
meaningfully redress the worsening political, economic, and ecological crises
that define our reality in this country.
We must organize, organize, and organize some more.
--Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the
Angola 3. Our website is http://www.angola3news.com where we provide the latest news
about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which
spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism,
repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.