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They weren’t nonviolent like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or India’s Mahatma Gandhi, but members of decades-old Black revolutionary groups opposed to police brutality have been aging away in state prison systems for decades.
Last week, a Pennsylvania judge freed former Black Panther member Russell “Maroon” Shoatz from prison, according to Democracy Now!
A member of both the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, 78-year-old “Maroon” Shoatz was sentenced in 1970 to life without the possibility of parole for participating in an attack on a Philadelphia police station that left one officer dead and one wounded.
Black Panthers fade away as public perception of police changes
At a time in the 1960s and ‘70s when police brutality wasn’t regularly captured on film, members of Black revolutionary groups took it upon themselves to protect their communities and, in some cases, violently confront armed agents of the government.
Today, police officers kill 1,000 U.S. civilians per year on average, according to Mapping Police Violence.
Yet, there’s also a wide range of activists, organizations, nonprofits, politicians, and even some police organizations that are working to transform the system into something resembling equitable justice.
Decades ago, however, supporting equal rights for Black people was hardly a national concern. Through any means necessary, Black revolutionaries sought to violently transform the justice system themselves, and state prison systems haven’t forgotten.
From escaping prison to winning solitary confinement lawsuit
For his part, former Black Panther member Russell Shoatz earned the nickname “Maroon” after escaping prison twice before. The name refers to enslaved Africans in the early Americas who escaped their Spanish captors and created free communities.
Meanwhile, after his second capture, Shoatz shifted to a diplomatic approach. He lobbied lawmakers to repeal life sentences without parole, even becoming the President of Pennsylvania Association of Lifers in 1983.
However, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections wasn’t impressed and placed him in solitary confinement for a total of 22 years. Shoatz was eventually released from solitary in 2014 and sued the state’s DOC for “cruel and unusual” treatment.
In his deposition, he described the cramped space he lived in for 23 hours a day as “approximately 84 square feet of floor space”, adding “the presence of the steel bunk, and toilet diminished the actual area wherein one could walk”.
Shoatz also described mental health impacts from his punishment, which included severe depression and anxiety. “I was infantilized for so long,” he added in his deposition.
Against the odds, he won his lawsuit in 2017. Shoatz was awarded $99,000 and a permanent reprieve from solitary confinement, thanks to assistance from his attorneys, which included representatives of Abolitionist Law Center.
Law Center devoted to releasing political prisoners
A decades-old organization spawned out of advocating for Pennsylvania state prisoners, the Abolitionist Law Center describes itself as a “public interest law firm inspired by the struggle of political and politicized prisoners, and organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States.”
After winning the lawsuit on behalf of his client Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, Abolitionist Law Center Executive Director Brete Grote praised the decision.
“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,” Grote said in 2017. This is a significant victory for a growing people’s movement against solitary confinement and the human rights violations inherent in mass incarceration.”
Meanwhile, the successful litigation didn’t result in Shoatz’ release from prison. A judge released him on “compassionate release” on October 26, 2021 after he spent nearly 50 years behind bars.
Family accuses prison system of killing Shoatz through medical neglect
Notably, the release is bittersweet for his family members, who claim the Pennsylvania prison system knowingly allowed his medical conditions to worsen to an irreversible point. Democracy Now! reports that Shoatz is currently in hospice care battling stage four colorectal cancer and must receive nutrients through an IV.
“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,” Russell Shoatz III recently told media.
Like political prisoner Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, other former Black Panthers have spent decades behind bars even after aging and developing chronic health conditions that would prevent them from being a danger to society.
Some have even died in prison, like former Black Panther Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, who died at 71-years-old in a California prison earlier this year after spending roughly 51 years behind bars.