PITTSBURGH (CN) - Former Black Panther Russell Shoatz can ask a jury to decide whether his 22½ consecutive years in solitary confinement constitute cruel and unusual punishment, a federal judge ruled.
Russell Shoatz aka Russell Maroon Shoats was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1970, after a Black Panther attack on a Philadelphia police guardhouse in which one officer was killed and another seriously wounded.
Seven years later, Shoats helped take over a cell block at Pennsylvania's Huntingdon State Correctional Institution, where he injured several guards with a knife before escaping.
As a fugitive, Shoats entered a prison guard's home, forced him and his wife to drive him with their 5-year-old son to the Cokesburg, Pa. woods, and left them tied to a tree for hours.
Shoats was captured and convicted of escape, robbery, kidnapping and simple assault in October 1977, and was later transferred to Fairview State Hospital for the criminally insane, a maximum security institution outside Waymart.
It took him just over a year to have guns smuggled in to him and escape again, in March 1979. He was recaptured and held in solitary confinement from 1980 to 1982, then again from the spring of 1983 "due to influence within Lifers organization," according to prison records.
Six years later, he was temporarily transferred to solitary in a federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., and put in solitary again, twice, despite not having violated any rules.
After Shoats was sent to State Correctional Institution (SCI)-Dallas in June 1991, he stayed in solitary continuously for nearly 23 years, until Feb. 20, 2014.
While in solitary at State Correctional Institution (SCI)-Mahanoy in Schuylkill County, Pa., Shoats sued the state Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and State Correctional Institution-Greene Superintendent Louis Folino in Federal Court.
He alleges cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy denied both sides summary judgment on Feb. 12.
"Shoatz has produced sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact finder to determine that the cumulative effect of over 22 years in consecutive solitary confinement constitutes a sufficiently serious deprivation of at least one basic human need, including but not limited to sleep, exercise, social contact and environmental stimulation," Eddy wrote.
The judge denied the state's claim that Shoats endured the same conditions as all inmates in solitary.
"It is obvious that being housed in isolation in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day for over two decades results in serious deprivations of basic human needs," Eddy wrote.
Shoats adequately alleged that the defendants were deliberately indifferent to his health and safety, based on the report of a certified psychiatrist, James Gilligan M.D., the ruling states.
His "emotional numbing and incapacity for intimacy" seem to be "direct sequelae of having spent virtually his entire adult life in complete and coerced social isolation (and sensory deprivation) - which is among the most abnormal and pathogenic environments in which it is possible to place a human being," Gilligan wrote. (Parentheses in ruling.)
Shoats also provided a report from Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
"In addition to the excessive duration and indefinite nature, his isolation contradicts the trend of all civilized nations in that it was imposed on the basis of status determinations unrelated to any conduct in his part, and through a meaningless procedure that did not afford him a serious chance to challenge the outcome," Mendez wrote.
Eddy found that Shoats has exhausted all administrative remedies, that the continuing violation doctrine tolls the statute of limitations, and that the defendants are not immune from suit.
She rejected Wetzel's claim that he was not personally involved in the violations, as he is the sole decision-maker on whether a prisoner remains in solitary.
Genuine issues of material fact remain, and they are for a jury to decide.
Department of Corrections Press Secretary Susan McNaughton and Scott Bradley, the defendants' lead attorney in the state Attorney General's office, both declined to comment on the ruling.
Shoatz's attorneys did not immediately respond Wednesday to emailed requests for comment.
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