Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, the Black liberationist long respected as a political prisoner and freedom fighter by friends and supporters, was granted a medical transfer on Monday to leave a Pennsylvania prison for treatment and hospice after five decades of imprisonment.
Shoatz was a former member of Black Panther Party and a soldier with the Black Liberation Army. He organized inside prisons for decades to abolish the life sentence without parole. This inspired activists and lawyers to take up the cause.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is now considering whether a legal challenge to the state’s practice of denying parole hearings to people serving life sentences for certain second-degree murder convictions can proceed. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, Pennsylvania has the highest per capita rate of life sentences in the country and the world.
Shoatz, 78, is said to be terminally ill following a diagnosis of cancer. Social media posts show that Shoatz was released by Philadelphia judge. Family members and activists spent years fighting for him’s release.
Shoatz was founded in 2014. released from solitary confinement after spending 22 consecutive years in “the hole” and later won a $99,000 legal settlement. Supporters say the solitary confinement amounted to retaliation against Shoatz’s efforts to organize other “lifers” and abolish what activists now call “death by incarceration,” or life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will decide whether to hear a lawsuit brought by six state prisoners challenging mandatory life sentences for people convicted the state’s “felony murder” rule. Under felony murder rules in Pennsylvania and most other states, a defendant can be held liable for second-degree murder if they participate in a felony crime that leads to a death — such as driving another person to a botched robbery — even if they did not kill the victim or intend for anyone to die.
Pennsylvania’s felony-murder rule is different than other states. A conviction in Pennsylvania carries an immediate life sentence and no parole possibility. The Center for Constitutional Rights reports that 1,100 people in Pennsylvania are serving life sentences for “felony murder” despite never intending to cause a death. Critics liken “death by incarceration” to the death penalty. Life sentences, which are similar to those sentenced for death and may be reaffirmed on appeal for many years, almost guarantee that people will die in prison.
The United States is well-known for giving longer sentences to prisoners than European countries. For example, people convicted for serious crimes like murder can be sentenced to longer prison sentences. two decades in prison or less.
“To be an outlier in the U.S. is to be the outlier in the world when it comes to life sentences,” said Bret Grote, the legal director of the Abolitionist Law Project, in an interview.
Tyreem, a plaintiff in this lawsuit, has been held in prison since 1996. He is now in his 40s. Rivers, then 18, grabbed the purse from an elderly woman who had fallen as a result. Rivers was convicted in felony murder, and the woman was hospitalized two weeks later. He received an automatic lifetime sentence.
“Show [the Rivers case] to most people, and they will not understand why that teenager who committed that offense, should he survive to old age, must live the rest of his life in prison,” Grote said.
In a statement, Rivers said he and other people serving life sentences under the felony murder rule “bear a great sense of remorse” for the role they played in harming victims and have spent years in prison working to better themselves. Human rights attorneys are calling on the State of Pennsylvania to recognize that the plaintiffs have “undergone remarkable transformations despite the challenges and violence of incarceration and their pre-incarceration backgrounds.”
“I can honestly say we no longer think or act as we once did before having been sentenced to life without parole,” Rivers said.
Rivers, along with the other plaintiffs, were all convicted in late teens or early twenties. It is true. researchers sayMany of those serving life sentences in Pennsylvania were teens or young adults who were struggling with poverty at the time. Today, they are very different.
Abolitionists say caging people in prison is inherently violent and can cause serious harm rather than supporting people through a self-transformation or “rehabilitation.”
Prosecutors typically decide whether to pursue a “felony murder” charge that carries a life sentence. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights in Philadelphia, 70 percent of Pennsylvanians sentenced under felony murder rules are Black. Black people are sentenced at an 18-times higher rate to life imprisonment than white Pennsylvanians. Latinx people are sentenced to “death by incarceration” at a rate five times higher than whites in the state.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has yet to rule on the merits. Instead, the court will decide if the case can proceed so that plaintiffs collectively challenge the state ban against parole hearings for life sentenced prisoners. This will allow them to pursue their individual pleas for parole. According to the lawsuit, sentencing people to death in prison is cruel and unjustifiable punishment under the state constitution.
Shoatz was not convicted of felony murder, unlike the plaintiffs in this case. Shoatz, who is both a political prisoner as well as a prisoner of war, was convicted in 1970 of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for the attack on a Philadelphia police station.
Today, tensions over police violence are still high in Philadelphia. Police Chief Frank Rizzo ordered a crackdown against Black liberation groups ahead of a national convention organized by the Black Panther Party. Police killed another unarmed Black youth. In retaliation, police were attacked, with one officer being injured and another being shot to death. The Black Panther headquarters was raided and multiple activists were arrested.
Shoatz fled underground, but he was captured and convicted of murder two-years later. His supporters claim that he was falsely accused. Shoatz escaped prison with other Black liberationists twice before being captured by authorities again. The liberationists were referred to as the New African Political Prisoners of War.
Shoatz spent a lot of his life resisting isolation, inspiring activists in free societies and fighting for the release of prisoners sentenced to death in prison. Shoatz’s supporters say he is now free to rejoin his family during the final stage of his life.
TodayReform effortsTo release aging “lifers” limit or abolish life sentencesA few states have begun to allow parole without parole. Abolitionists argue that reforms alone are not sufficient. We need to reimagine accountability and support in order to end mass imprisonment and build a world with no prisons.