11th-Hour Settlement|in 22-Year Solitary Case

           (CN) — Narrowly avoiding a groundbreaking trial Monday against solitary confinement, Pennsylvania quietly settled a lawsuit from a former Black Panther whose 22-year stint in solitary confinement transformed him into an international cause celebre.
     For his family and supporters, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz’s case is not only a victory against what they describe as psychological torture — but a story of redemption that rejects the notion of the incorrigible criminal.
     Shoatz had been a 26-year-old, underground member of the Black Liberation Army when he took part in an attack on a Philadelphia police guardhouse that killed a sergeant in 1970.
     Seven years into his prison term, Shoatz helped take over a cell block at Pennsylvania’s Huntingdon State Correctional Institution at knife point, in an escape that left a prison guard, his wife and their 5-year-old child tied up to a tree in the Cokesville, Pa., woods for four hours.
     Authorities captured him the next month and later transferred him to Fairview State Hospital, a maximum-security facility for the criminally insane.
     Two years later, Shoatz used guns smuggled into this institution for his second attempted break, and he changed his name to “Maroon” in a nod to the historical fugitive-slave societies across the Americas.
     But Shoatz says that it was his jailhouse activism, not these crimes, that landed him in long-term solitary confinement.
     In 1982, Pennsylvania prison authorities had transferred Shoatz to the general population of SCI Pittsburgh, and the former Black Panther started organizing prisoners through a group called Pennsylvania Association of Lifers, or PAL.
     PAL lobbied for the repeal of life-without-parole sentences in the state, and prison records cited Shoatz’s “influence within Lifers organization,” in returning him to isolation.
     For the better part of the next three decades, Shoatz says, he has been shuffled in and out of solitary confinement across the country. His longest stretch — between June 1991 and Feb. 20, 2014 — lasted more than 22 years.
     Under his birth name, Shoatz sued three years ago for violations of his Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, and he won his release into the general population a month after a federal magistrate refused to dismiss his lawsuit.
     His case coincided with a growing chorus of outrage against long-term solitary confinement, a practice that the United Nations has found could amount to torture.
     In a report titled “Entombed,” Amnesty International noted that the United States stands “virtually alone in the world in incarcerating thousands of prisoners in long-term or indefinite solitary confinement.”
     U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, who called for an international ban of any more than 15 days of solitary confinement in 2011, offered expert testimony on Shoatz’s behalf in the Western District of Pennsylvania.
     Five Nobel Peace Prize laureates — Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor, Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Jody Williams from the United States, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina — also took up Shoatz’s cause.
     Amid international attention, the prisoner published a collection of jailhouse writings, “Maroon the Implacable,” in 2013.
     Until that time, Shoatz had been represented solely by the nonprofit Abolitionist Law Center, but the book’s publication brought more pro bono support by the heavyweight international law firm Reed Smith.
     His case turned another corner in February, when U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy pushed the case ahead for a trial that could have set a precedent for tens of thousands of prisoners held in solitary confinement.
     Before a jury would receive their questionnaires, Pennsylvania averted a trial by reaching a “settlement in principle.”
     Shoatz’s family declined to disclose the sum of the monetary award, and his attorneys formally dismissed their client’s claims on Thursday, days before the start of the anticipated July 11 trial.
     In a phone interview, the Abolitionist Law Center’s lawyer Bret Grote hailed the settlement as an “unmitigated victory” that would address their client’s pressing mental health needs while sparing him lengthy and unpredictable legal battles.
     Under the terms of the deal, Shoatz will receive a psychological evaluation and be guaranteed single-cell status for life, allowing him to adapt to life in the general population after decades of solitary confinement.
     Reached for a reaction, Shoatz’s son Russell Shoatz III said that this concession was important for his father’s mental health. He expressed hope that the settlement would demonstrate the need for a “restorative” view of justice that will “create spaces for the redemption of the quote-unquote ‘irredeemable’ and ‘incorrigible.”
     The younger Shoatz added that, for his father, the settlement does not give back the lost time.
     “There is no agreement, contract, psychoanalysis, single-cell that can give you back the years after mental torture,” he said.
     Amy Worden, a press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said the agency was glad to reach an “amicable resolution to this situation.”
     “We are happy with the terms of the agreement and will continue to abide by them for the duration of Mr. Shoatz’s sentence,” she added.
     Mendez, the U.N. investigator, applauded the settlement as “a major contribution to the quest to outlaw prolonged solitary confinement in the U.S. and around the world.”
     At age 72, Shoatz still calls himself a political prisoner, and he released a defiant statement showing no regrets for the path he took.
     “Since joining the struggle for human rights in the mid 1960s, I have always chosen to fight!” he wrote. “Frederick Douglass was right when he said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.'”
     Meanwhile, in his father’s case, the younger Shoatz heard echoes of other stories of racially tinged violence by and against police officers dominating the news cycle.
     He said that all of the cases emphasize the need for “holistic healing,” suggesting South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a model.

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