Inmate who sued state is released from solitary confinement

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An inmate who sued state officials to end more than two decades in solitary confinement has been transferred to general population at the State Correctional Institution Graterford, advocacy organizations have announced.

Russell Shoatz, 70, of Philadelphia sued in May in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, claiming that he had no recent history of misconduct to warrant placement in solitary confinement.

Shoatz had escaped twice from prison, in 1977 and 1980, and in 1983 became interim president of the inmate organization Pennsylvania Association of Lifers, according to his lawsuit. After that, his solitary confinement was broken only by a stint in federal custody ending in 1991, his attorneys have alleged. They said that violated his right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment and his due process rights.

"We are very excited that this day has finally come," said Shoatz's son, Russell Shoatz III, in a release from the Abolitionist Law Center and Human Rights Coalition -- FedUp! "My father being released from solitary confinement is proof of the power of people organizing against injustice, and the importance of building strong coalitions."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections wrote: "Individuals in restrictive housing units are reviewed regularly and their disposition is predicated on their behavior."

In their answer to the lawsuit, filed Friday, the department contended that Shoatz's long stay in solitary confinement stems from his "history of assaults, fights, kidnapping, hostage taking, multiple escapes, weapons introduction/possession/use, involvement in facility hunger strike [and] planned ... military style action" in prison.

Shoatz was sentenced to life in 1972 for the 1970 slaying in Philadelphia of Fairmount Park police Sgt. Frank Von Colln.

In Pennsylvania, solitary confinement consists of 23 hours a day in a cell. Shoatz was placed on a Restricted Release List, which meant that only state Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel could return him to general population, according to the complaint. The lawsuit asked for his release to the general population and payment of damages.

His return to the general population occurred Thursday, nearly a month after U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Eddy ruled against the state in its motion to dismiss Shoatz's case.

Shoatz, she wrote, alleged low temperatures, sleep deprivation and a variety of physical and psychological problems stemming from his time in restricted housing. She said those claims established a cruel and unusual punishment case, and that his due process rights may have been violated because the state has not explained why he must stay in restricted housing.

Shoatz is aided by attorneys Richard L. Etter and Stefanie Lepore Burt of Reed Smith, Bret Grote and Dustin McDaniel of the Abolitionist Law Center and Daniel M. Kovalik.


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord. First Published February 21, 2014 9:30 AM

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