After almost 50 years behind bars, Black Panther Russell “Maroon” Shoatz was freed from prison in Pennsylvania last week, after a judge granted his compassionate release. 78-year-old Shoatz, who served 49 years in prison with more than 22 years in solitary confinement, was freed on October 26.
A Black Panther and a member of the Black Liberation Army, Shoatz was sentenced in 1972 to life without the possibility of parole for an attack on a Philadelphia police station in August 1970 that killed one police officer, Frank Von Colln, and wounded another. After the attack, Shoatz and five other self-described Black revolutionaries were convicted of Von Colln’s murder and sentenced. According to the Inquirer, a sixth man, arrested in 1996 after 26 years as a fugitive, was acquitted at trial in 1998.
It was all radical and bloody in the 1970s when the Black liberation fighters struggle was at its peak in the United States. The violence was spurred by the incessant racism and disregard of the rights of Black people despite laws that protected the race after over 200 years in slavery.
The liberation struggle gave birth to militant groups like Philadelphia-based MOVE founded by John Africa in 1972 and the Black Panther Party founded in late October 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale drawing on experiences working with a variety of Black Power organizations. As members of the police force were killed in Black communities for using excessive force and killing Black people, members of the militant groups later classified as terrorist organizations were killed for their aggression towards racism and police brutality while others were jailed, some for crimes they never committed.
Black Panther member Shoatz escaped prison twice, in 1977 and in 1980. That earned him the nickname “Maroon”, which refers to a special class of “runaways” that left the cities and towns created by Whites and chose to create settlements in harsh climates where the Whites were unlikely to pursue them.
When Shoatz was caught after his escape the second time, he sought to win release by lobbying lawmakers to repeal sentences of life without parole, according to The Guardian. He even became the President of the Pennsylvania Association of Lifers in 1983 and was placed in solitary confinement in 1992 by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for a total of 22 years.
He was eventually released from solitary in 2014 after successfully finishing a step-down program. Shoatz sued the state’s Department of Corrections for “cruel and unusual” treatment. In his deposition cited by The Guardian, Shoatz described having “approximately 84 square feet of floor space” in his restrictive housing unit cell, adding that “the presence of the steel bunk, and toilet diminished the actual area wherein one could walk” to about 58 square feet.
He said rubber strips lined his cell door and sealed him inside for 23 hours a day. There was also an invasive strip-search each time he left, he said. Shoatz further said he experienced mental health problems including depression and anxiety while in solitary confinement. In 2016, with assistance from his attorneys, which included representatives from the Abolitionist Law Center, he won his lawsuit and was awarded $99,000 and a permanent reprieve from solitary confinement.
“My talk with Maroon today was very moving. There are no words to adequately convey the significance of his release to the general population for him and his family,” Abolitionist Law Center Executive Director Brete Grote said at the time, adding that this “is a significant victory for a growing people’s movement against solitary confinement and the human rights violations inherent in mass incarceration.”
The state told Shoatz that it would stop punishing him with isolation for past infractions and give him a one-man cell in the general population, the Inquirer reported.
Five years after having won a $99,000 settlement, Shoatz has been freed but Democracy Now reports that he is currently in hospice care battling stage four colorectal cancer and must receive nutrients through an IV.
His son Russell Shoatz III recently told the media: “What’s in the transcripts are the evidence that the prisons don’t have the capabilities to take care not just of 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.”
Over two years, Ed Pilkington, the chief reporter for Guardian US, interviewed a number of Black people labeled radicals who are still in prison since the 1970s. Some of them are members of MOVE who were convicted 25 years to life for killing cops in 1971. Some of the jailed fighters have died in prison while the remaining maintain their innocence and complain of unfair trials, cover-ups and a deliberate attempt by the government to keep them in jail till their death as they are denied parole.