Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a Black Panther, was released from jail in Pennsylvania last week when a judge granted him compassionate release after nearly 50 years behind bars. Shoatz, 78, was released on October 26 after serving 49 years in jail, including more than 22 years in solitary confinement.
Shoatz, a member of the Black Liberation Army and a Black Panther, was condemned to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1972 for an attack on a Philadelphia police station in August 1970 that killed one officer, Frank Von Colln, and injured another. Shoatz and five other Black revolutionaries were convicted and sentenced for Von Colln’s murder after the incident. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, a sixth guy was acquitted at trial in 1998 after being apprehended in 1996 after 26 years on the run.
In the 1970s, when the struggle of Black liberation warriors in the United States was at its pinnacle, everything was radical and bloody. The violence was sparked by persistent bigotry and contempt for Black people’s rights, despite laws protecting the race after more than 200 years of enslavement.
The liberation fight gave birth to militant groups like MOVE, founded by John Africa in Philadelphia in 1972, and the Black Panther Party, created by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in late October 1966, based on their experiences working with a number of Black Power organizations. Members of militant groups later classified as terrorist organizations were killed for their aggression toward racism and police brutality, while others were jailed, some for crimes they never committed, as members of the police force were killed in Black communities for using excessive force and killing Black people.
Shoatz, a member of the Black Panther Party, escaped prison twice, in 1977 and 1980. This earned him the moniker “Maroon,” which refers to a subset of “runaways” who fled enslavement and subjugation from white people, in favor of establishing communities in difficult regions where Whites were less inclined to pursue and enslave them.
When Shoatz was apprehended after his second escape, he lobbied lawmakers to overturn life sentences without the possibility of parole, according to The Guardian. In 1983, he was elected President of the Pennsylvania Association of Lifers, and in 1992, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections sentenced him to 22 years in solitary confinement.
After successfully completing a step-down program, he was eventually freed from solitary confinement in 2014. Shoatz filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections in the state, alleging “cruel and unusual” treatment. Shoatz stated in his deposition, published by The Guardian, that his limited housing unit cell had “about 84 square feet of floor space,” but that “the presence of the steel bunk and toilet diminished the actual area whereby one could move” to roughly 58 square feet.
Rubber strips, he claimed, surrounded his cell door and kept him locked inside for 23 hours a day. He further said that every time he departed, he was subjected to an invasive strip search. Shoatz further claimed that while in solitary confinement, he suffered from mental health issues such as sadness and anxiety. In 2016, he won his lawsuit with the help of his attorneys, including representatives from the Abolitionist Law Center, and was given $99,000 as well as a permanent relief from solitary confinement.
“Today’s conversation with Maroon was quite moving. “There are no words to adequately convey to the general public the significance of his release for him and his family,” Abolitionist Law Center Executive Director Brete Grote said at the time, adding that it was “a significant victory for a growing people’s movement against solitary confinement and the human rights violations inherent in mass incarceration.”
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the state instructed Shoatz that he would no longer be isolated for previous offenses and would instead be given a one-man cell in the general population.
Shoatz has been liberated five years after winning a $99,000 settlement, but according to Democracy Now, he is currently in hospice care, facing stage four colon cancer, and must receive nourishment through an IV.
“What’s in the transcripts are the evidence that the prisons don’t have the capabilities to take care of not just their healthy prisoners, they definitely don’t have the ability to take care of their geriatric prisoners, and that they have effectively killed my father,” his son Russell Shoatz III recently told the media.
Ed Pilkington, the Guardian’s chief reporter in the United States, spent two years interviewing a number of Black radicals who had been in prison since the 1970s. Some of them are MOVE members who were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for allegedly murdering cops in 1971. Some of the imprisoned rebels have died in prison, but the rest maintain their innocence and accuse the government of biased trials, cover-ups, and a deliberate attempt to keep them in prison until they die by denying them release.