Russell Maroon Shoats (Maroon), a 68-year old political prisoner, has spent the last twenty-one years in solitary confinement within the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC). During this time he has not violated prison rules, and has not been issued any misconducts in more than two decades. Despite his impeccable record, prison authorities continue to hold him in 23-24 hour lockdown at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Greene based on acts that occurred more than thirty years ago.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Maroon had been a dedicated human rights activist and community organizer in Philadelphia with the Black Unity Council and the Black Panther Party. In 1970, Maroon and five others were accused of an attack on a police station that resulted in the death of a police officer. The attack was carried out in response to the well-documented, pervasive assaults, beatings, and killings perpetrated against the black community in Philadelphia by police forces. Maroon was captured in 1972 and subsequently convicted to serve multiple sentenced of life without the possibility of parole.
Maroon managed to liberate himself from prison on two occasions, once in 1977 for a period of twenty-seven days, and a second time in 1980 that lasted three days before he was recaptured.
During the seventies and eighties, Maroon was frequently placed in solitary confinement in order to repress his organizing ability, as he was and still remains an influential figure both inside and outside of prison. Maroon was placed in solitary after being elected as president of the DOC-approved lifers organization in 1982. In 1989, after a prisoner uprising at SCI Camp Hill in central Pennsylvania, Maroon was temporarily transferred to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, although he was not confined at SCI Camp Hill during the uprising and played no role in it. During his eighteen months in federal custody, Maroon was held in the prison’s general population without incident. Upon his return to Pennsylvania, he was immediately placed in solitary confinement, where he has remained to this moment in violation of his right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Conditions in the restricted housing unit
Prisoners in the PA DOC’s typical solitary units, known as Restricted Housing Units (RHUs), are held in tiny, windowless concrete cells that are approximately 64 square feet. The cells contain a concrete slab for a bed, and a thin foam mattress is provided to sleep on. The cells also come equipped with a sink and toilet. The cell remains constantly illuminated, twenty-four hours per day.
Prisoners in the RHU are deprived all meaningful social interaction, deprived of environmental stimulation, and severely restricted in the forms of intellectual activity that they can engage in. There is no educational, vocational, therapeutic or other programming in the unit. Reading material is often censored in order to control the ideas a prisoner has access to. Prisoners in solitary confinement have substantial limits on the amount of property they are allowed to possess. All visitations are non-contact, conducted through a thick pane of glass, during which the prisoner is handcuffed. Prisoners are served meals three times a day in their cell by guards who deliver the food through a tray slot that is present in the middle of the solid steel door of the cell. The door has two thin glass slits for windows, providing limited ability to see outside of the cell. Exercise is permitted for one hour five days per week in a caged area not much larger than the solitary confinement cell itself. There is no exercise equipment or recreational items available to RHU prisoners. Showers occur three times per week. During escort to showers and yard, a prisoner may be subject to a visual strip search, and will be handcuffed prior to leaving the cell. Often, prisoners are placed in leg shackles as well.
Solitary confinement units throughout the PA DOC, including those Maroon has been confined in, are often populated with mentally disturbed and sometimes psychotic individuals whose incessant screaming, talking, ranting, crying, banging on walls and furniture, and so on make it difficult to concentrate, sleep, and hold onto one’s own sanity.
In addition to these general conditions of confinement, the solitary units in the PA DOC are rife with human rights violations, including physical and psychological abuse, racial discrimination, deprivation of food, yard, showers, routine retaliation, sexual harassment on the part of staff, refusal to provide competent and prompt—or even any—physical and mental health care, and more. Over his twenty years of solitary confinement, Maroon has experienced or witnessed others who have been subject to these further human rights violations.
During his time in solitary confinement, Russell Shoats has experienced several serious health problems that have been exacerbated by the intense stress of the RHU, and the inadequate health care provided to prisoners in solitary units in Pennsylvania. These conditions have included hypertension, prostrate infection, damage to his muscles based on his being provided inappropriate medication, and development of cataracts in both eyes. Although he received surgery for one of his cataracts, he is currently in need of surgery to remove the other.
The imposition of such conditions of confinement for more than twenty years constitutes a flagrant violation of Russell Shoats’ right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Rationale for continued placement in solitary confinement
There are two classifications for prisoners placed in the RHU in the PA DOC, disciplinary or administrative custody. Disciplinary custody is for those found guilty of violating prison rules. Administrative custody is a catch-all that has broad criteria capable of justifying virtually any decision to hold a person in solitary confinement. In Maroon’s case, he has been kept on administrative custody status for more than twenty years under the pretext that he poses an escape risk if removed from the RHU. This rationale overlooks the reality that Pennsylvania prisons are far more fortified than when Maroon last escaped more than thirty years ago along with the fact that Maroon is nearly 70-years-old and less capable of posing a threat. Preventing escape, however, does not explain the extreme sterility, isolation, and deprivation of his current confinement, which is instead punitive in design and function. Maroon and his supporters are also aware of instances of other prisoners who have escaped or attempted to escape who have since been released into general population. Finally, this rationale overlooks the fact that Maroon has been released into the general prison population by the PA DOC and the federal prison authorities since his 1980 escape without incident.
The PA DOC has placed Maroon on something it refers to as the Restricted Release List (RRL), which is a list of approximately 85 prisoners (as of August 2010) who may not be placed into general population at any prison without the express authorization of the Secretary of the PA DOC, John Wetzel. In order to be removed from solitary confinement, Maroon must first be granted authorization by the prison at which he is held, in this case SCI Greene, then by the Regional Deputy Secretary, and the Secretary. His classification status is nominally reviewed every 90 days, although he is always given the same rationale (escape risk) and never told what is necessary to be released.
Further, during a visit with SCI Greene’s warden, Louis Folino, a visitor was informed that Maroon is being kept in solitary confinement due to an alleged plot to take over a prison in the 1980s and his role as an organizer. A mental health staff person asked Maroon about this alleged plot during a psychological evaluation a little more than a year ago. Maroon has no knowledge of any such plot, and if there is information regarding such in his file it is a fabrication. To the extent that Maroon is being held in permanent, life-long solitary confinement on the basis of secret and fabricated evidence his rights to due process are being violated.