Katia Faroun & Carissa Haslam | The Duquesne Duke
Seventy-seven years old. Suffering from stage 4 cancer. Diagnosed with COVID-19.
Russell “Maroon” Shoatz’s story sounds tragically familiar in a pandemic-stricken world, where millions of already vulnerable individuals have found themselves battling a contagious respiratory virus on top of underlying health conditions. But an additional fact makes his situation unique: Shoatz is in prison, where he’s been for the past 49 years.
Because of his age and worsening health, supporters are speaking up about Shoatz’s situation and, alongside health experts, are calling on Gov. Tom Wolf to release him immediately from prison. On Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — members of the Free Maroon Now Coalition and other supporters gathered in Pittsburgh as part of a caravan throughout the city to raise awareness.
Carrying flags and signs that communicated support for Maroon and advocated for various types of criminal justice reform, vehicles stretched more than a block in length and traveled throughout Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, starting on East Carson Street in the South Side and ending near Freedom Corner in the Hill District. The caravan, which replaced a demonstration that was expected to take place on the steps of the state capitol in Harrisburg but was canceled due to recent threats of violence following the events of Jan. 6, accompanied a sister caravan taking place at the same time in Harlem, New York.
Caravan participants included Pittsburgh residents and members of various local advocacy organizations, in addition to members of the Free Maroon Now Coalition.
One participant, who goes by the name Man-e, believes that Shoatz’s release is overdue — and not just because of his health.
“I believe in the release of all political prisoners,” Man-e said. “He’s in prison because of politics … and I believe he should be free.”
Shoatz is a former Black Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army. In 1970, a Philadelphia police station was attacked after a Black youth was killed by one of the city’s officers. An officer died during the retaliatory attack, and Shoatz was one of five men charged with murder in connection to the event. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Since his arrest, Shoatz has been transferred to multiple prisons across the country and experienced repeated periods of solitary confinement — the longest being 22 consecutive years. He’s currently incarcerated in SCI Dallas, and after being transferred to SCI Fayette in Pennsylvania for cancer treatment, Shoatz tested positive for COVID-19 in November.
Shoatz’s positive test postponed a scheduled surgery to remove a rectal tumor. His underlying health conditions and COVID diagnosis have encouraged physicians, professors and organizations to join in with activists calling for Shoatz’s immediate release, citing inhumane treatment of COVID-19 positive inmates at SCI Fayette and a life-threatening delay to his cancer treatment.
In a statement to Gov. Tom Wolf, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, 145 human rights and criminal justice organizations argue that because of his age and compromised health, Shoatz no longer poses a threat to society.
“The time is now to do what’s right, and to model for the rest of the country what a rational and ethical response to the impact of COVID-19 on society’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations looks like,” the statement says.
While Shoatz’s release has been encouraged by supporters for years, his COVID diagnosis reignited their movement, according to etta cetera, a local activist and friend of Shoatz who organized the caravan.
“His being a political prisoner was injustice enough, motivating enough,” etta said. “… His COVID diagnosis galvanized everyone to come together.”
Supporters were encouraged by Shoatz’s release from solitary confinement in 2014. His case gathered international attention, and Shoatz reached a settlement of $99,000 after arguing his conditions in solitary confinement were consistent with “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Now that he has returned to the general population, activists are motivated to push for Shoatz’s unconditional release from prison.
“We are spitting ourselves and our voices and our spirit in this long river of justice,” etta said. “Every voice matters. Every action matters.”