News comes as state legislators set hearing on solitary confinement in PA prisons
Contact: Theresa Shoatz firstname.lastname@example.org 267-456-7882
July 19, 2012: Philadelphia, PA — Leading human rights organizations and the family of Russell Maroon Shoats received word last month that the United Nations’ leading expert on torture, Juan Mendez, will submit an inquiry into Shoats’ ongoing solitary confinement at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Greene in western Pennsylvania. Mendez, who is the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, sent a letter to a U.S. State Department representative in Geneva, Switzerland at the end of last month regarding the case of Shoats, a 68-year-old Pennsylvania state prisoner who has been held in solitary confinement for 21 consecutive years.
The Special Rapporteur’s inquiry was prompted by a complaint submitted by Shoats’ children on behalf of the International Campaign to Free Russell Maroon Shoats (the Campaign) along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, National Lawyers Guild, and the Human Rights Coalition–Fed Up! Chapter. The complaint requested that the Special Rapporteur “immediately initiate a prompt and comprehensive investigation into the facts surrounding Shoats’ two decade stay in the solitary units administered by the the PA Department of Corrections (PA-DOC).
Other co-signers to the complaint were represented the War Resisters League, the International Peace Research Association, National Jericho Movement, Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, Big Red Media, and Scientific Soul Sessions.
News of the Special Rapporteur’s interest in this case came less than two weeks after a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons prompted a wave of editorials denouncing the pervasive use of solitary confinement as torture. ThePittsburgh Post-Gazette declared that it is “time to view solitary confinement as torture, comparing the practice of locking a person in a tiny cell for 23 hours per day for years on end to “a debased practice of totalitarian regimes,” acknowledging that “criminals themselves are being held by criminal means.”
PA State Representative Ron Waters has recently announced that PA state legislators will hold a similar hearing on solitary confinement on September 18. This is particularly noteworthy since the modern practice of solitary confinement originated in PA in the early 19thcentury.
The Campaign holds the position that Shoats is being tortured, and further that this torture is being applied as persecution for his history as a political dissident and human rights defender inside and outside prison. “This conscience-shocking maltreatment constitutes an urgent human rights crisis,” said Bret Grote of HRC–Fed Up!. “It is emblematic of the lawlessness that exists inside Pennsylvania and United States prisons.”
The international campaign to free Shoats from solitary confinement was formally launched in May. In late June campaign representatives met with PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel to discuss Shoats’ case. The Secretary, who has repeatedly touted himself as a reformer in the press, stated that he would review the matter.
In 2011, the Special Rapporteur submitted a report on solitary confinement to the UN General Assembly that found that “any imposition of solitary confinement beyond 15 days constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” and called on the international community to adopt such a standard and impose “an absolute prohibition on solitary confinement exceeding 15 consecutive days.” In contrast to these recommendations, the state of Pennsylvania holds approximately 2,500 persons in solitary on any given day, countless hundreds for years at a time. A typical minimum sentence to solitary in the PA DOC consists of twice the UN Rapporteur’s threshold of fifteen days.
“We will continue to push for this urgent human rights crisis into the public spotlight,” said Theresa Shoatz. “As family members of a survivor of this torture, we know that its time for this hateful practice to end.”
Supporters are being asked to contact SCI Greene’s warden, Louis Folino, and PA DOC Secretary Wetzel and request that Russell Shoats be placed in general population. They are also asking that people sign an online petition in support of the campaign: petition link here.
PA Secretary John Wetzel
1920 Technology Parkway
Mechanicsburg, PA 17050
Superintendent Louis Folino
169 Progress Drive
Waynesburg, PA 15370