Open Letter from a Life Prisoner

To His Holiness Pope Francis

Most Holy Father:

My name is Russell Shoatz, and I have been continuously imprisoned in U.S.A. prisons for over 43 years, after being convicted in regards to the death of a policeman in 1970.

Although I have never killed another individual, I was nonetheless a part of a movement whose outrage and actions against racial, economic, and social injustice resulted in the death of that policeman, a train of events that leaves me with deep remorse.

It is said that when a fool gets enough scars, he will become a wise man. In my case – soon to be 72 years of age – I have certainly gained some wisdom about some matters, in particular what I am about to present here. Namely my concern nowadays is for the countless younger people who may be forced to also spend their lives in prisons because of the injustices in this society, highlighted by the seemingly unjust killings of individuals at the hands of police all over this country, similar to the events that landed me in prison so long ago.

Yet, while I seek forgiveness and work towards reconciliation with those I have wronged and hurt, the bigger picture urges me to also strive towards laying a foundation to help younger people extract themselves from a generations-old racial, economic, and historical set of contradictions that not only led to my imprisonment, but has since metastasized into the criminalization of millions based on their racial and/or economic standing – an unjust, unethical, and ultimate poisoning of society that is at odds with the compassion and broadness of vision that Your Holiness is held in such high esteem for championing.

Society has everything it needs to rescue itself from the MASS INCARCERATION fallout that has resulted from these failures. And by overcoming this part of our problems, we place ourselves in a position to challenge others to fashion solutions to other social issues that have been eating away at us for so long.

A way forward in uprooting MASS INCARCERATION rests with offering every prisoner – as well as every prison employee – an opportunity to obtain the type of education and skill-sets needed by society in the 21st century, all of which can be accomplished by joining the global online revolution in higher education.

Just imagine the changes that would come about if the U.S.A.’s vast array of colleges and universities were to afford such a task to their faculties and students, who presently desperately need a “mission” of sufficient gravity to convince the tax-paying public to support them and not the MASS INCARCERATION they now underwrite. The slogan for such an initiative could be: “MASS EDUCATION – YES. MASS INCARCERATION – NO!”

Clearly all demographics would benefit: The taxpayers would be relieved of pouring billions into the present bottomless pit. College and university faculties and students would gain unmatched experience in tackling one of society’s most vexing problems, and thus place themselves on firmer ground when arguing that it’s unwise to treat them as they are presently being treated, primarily as economic cogs. Millions of prisoners would transition from being society’s burdens into societal assets. And many prison employees could use their acquired education and skill-sets to move on to more rewarding and stable professions.

Otherwise we continue to muddle in the present unsustainable manner… That’s until the taxpayers become so frustrated that they demand a generalized privatization of the prison system, which has been cleverly marketed as a solution, but is failing everywhere to deliver on its promises.

Your Holiness:

Your compassion is offering hope and comfort to billions. If what I have expressed here is deemed worthy of your consideration, would it be too much to further beseech you to find your way to the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, which is the largest prison in the state of Pennsylvania, and is within fifty miles of the city of Philadelphia, which you are scheduled to visit in the Fall? Such a visit would highlight our meager efforts at Graterford to convince our state’s lawmakers and citizens to replace the present unethical system of MASS INCARCERATION with one of MASS EDUCATION and true REHABILITATION.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Russell Shoatz (AKA Russell Shoats – Maroon/ Harun a. Ra’uf) AF3855

Box 244 Graterford, PA 19426-0246 U.S.A.

Note: We’ve received indication that the Pope will, in fact, visit Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFC) while in town, and we invite you to reiterate the importance of such a visit, and express your support for it, by tweeting the official Papal Twitter account, @Pontifex, with a message echoing Maroon’s sentiments. We ask that you not specify Maroon by name, but rather, use the slogan he’s put forth in his letter. One such tweet tweet might read: “@Pontifex Please take time to meet Pennsylvania prisoners. MASS EDUCATION–YES! MASS INCARCERATION–NO!” If you do choose to tweet, please also include the hashtags #PopeVisitPAprisoners and #PopeInPhilly.


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