by Steve Bloom
February 21, 2014
Yes, victories are possible. It was only a small victory–the transfer of one state prisoner in Pennsylvania from solitary confinement to the general prison population. It was, however, a monumental victory, because the prisoner in question was Russell Maroon Shoatz, 70 years old, who had been held continuously in “administrative isolation” for the previous 22 years because of his political views and organizing activity. The action by Pennsylvania prison authorities came after almost a year of vigorous protests by Maroon’s supporters.
Russell Maroon Shoatz.
Last April, the Campaign to Free Russell Maroon Shoatz launched a major effort to flood the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) and the warden at SCI Greene (the prison where Maroon was then being held) with letters and phone calls demanding his release into the general population. This was coordinated with a letter sent by Maroon’s attorneys, promising a federal lawsuit if the demand for his release from solitary was not met.
In response, a few days before the campaign was actually launched, the PA DOC transferred Maroon to SCI Mahanoy, a lower-security facility. Statements were made by more than one individual in authority suggesting that the purpose of this transfer was to facilitate Maroon’s release from solitary confinement. In the meantime, however, there was no change in his status. He remained in isolation at Mahanoy. A few months later he was moved to still another prison, SCI Frackville, where he was told that he was expected to go through a “step down” period. If he completed the “step down” process successfully he would then be released into the general population.
Last December, however, despite being informed by everyone at Frackville that there were no difficulties raised by his behavior during the “step down” process, Maroon was formally notified that he would not be released from solitary at Frackville after all, because there was another prisoner resident there whom Maroon was prohibited from having contact with. He would be transferred instead to SCI Graterford which would consider placing him in general population. Yesterday, at Grateford, the process of moving Maroon from Solitary into the general population was finally completed.
Pressure for Maroon’s release from solitary confinement has been growing. Last March, for example, Juan Mendez, the United Nations Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment and Punishment, issued a statement which called on the state of Pennsylvania to end Maroon’s prolonged isolation. Another declaration was signed by five Nobel Laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. The federal lawsuit filed by Maroon’s attorneys has also been making progress. Recently the judge assigned to the case turned down the PA DOC’s motion for a dismissal, allowing the lawsuit to proceed.
Recently supporters discovered that PA DOC offices have, in the last several weeks, been so flooded with protest phone calls and letters that one staff member had to be specially assigned to deal full time with questions and demands around Maroon’s case. It was becoming difficult or impossible to continue with routine tasks. And so it seems they finally came to the conclusion, after months of stalling, that they had to act.
Steve Bloom is a member of Solidarity in New York City, and active in the Campaign to Free Russell Maroon Shoatz.