Pennsylvania inmate sues over solitary confinement

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An inmate at the State Correctional Institution Mahanoy sued three state officials Wednesday, alleging that their policies had kept him in solitary confinement for 21 years despite no recent history of misconduct.

Russell Shoatz, 69, originally of Philadelphia, sued in the Western District of U.S. District Court, aided by attorneys Richard L. Etter of Reed Smith, Dustin McDaniel of the Abolitionist Law Center and Daniel M. Kovalik.

Their complaint said Shoatz was sentenced to life without parole in 1972 after he was convicted of the 1970 slaying in Philadelphia of Fairmount Park police Sgt. Frank Von Colln.

Shoatz escaped from prison twice, in 1977 and 1980, according to the complaint. It indicated that in 1983 he became interim president of the inmate organization Pennsylvania Association of Lifers, and was promptly placed in solitary confinement.

Since then, except for a brief stint in a federal penitentiary ending in 1991, he has been in solitary confinement, in a small cell for 23 hours each day, according to the complaint. He has been placed on a Restricted Release List, which means that only state Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel can return him to general population, according to the complaint. It indicates one misconduct in the last 23 years, for covering a cell vent in an attempt to stay warm.

"The continuous, prolonged exposure to the brutal conditions of solitary confinement have caused Shoatz physical and mental harm and anguish," according to the complaint, which characterized that as a violation of the Eighth Amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment.

The complaint asked for an end to the solitary confinement, compensatory and punitive damages and payment of attorney fees and costs. It named as defendants state Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel, SCI Mahanoy Superintendent John Kerestes and Louis J. Folino, superintendent at SCI Greene, where Shoatz was previously held.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman declined comment.

Shoatz has been backed by the Human Rights Coalition -- Fed Up!, which plans to hold a news conference today at noon at the City-County Building, Downtown.

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The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed. Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.


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