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.
A former member of the Black Panther Party and a soldier in the Black Liberation Army, Shoatz organized inside prisons for decades to abolish life sentences without parole, inspiring activists and attorneys 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. All life sentences in Pennsylvania excluded the possibility of parole, and the state has the highest per-capita rate of people serving life sentences in the nation and the world, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The 78-year-old Shoatz, who remains highly influential within the Black liberation and prison abolition movements, is reportedly terminally ill after being diagnosed with cancer. In social media posts, activists and family members who spent years fighting for his release celebrated on Monday after a judge in Philadelphia agreed to transfer Shoatz from a prison to a hospital.
In 2014, Shoatz was 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.
Unlike other states, conviction under the felony murder rule in Pennsylvania carries an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole. 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. Like those sentenced to death who may survive for years on appeal, life sentences all but assure that people with die in prison.
The United States is known for handing out much longer prison sentences than European countries, for example, where people convicted of serious crimes such as murder can serve 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 Rivers, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, has been imprisoned since 1996 and is now in his 40s. At the age of 18, Rivers grabbed the purse of an elderly woman who fell as a result of the robbery. The woman contracted pneumonia while hospitalized two weeks later, and Rivers was convicted under the felony murder rule and received an automatic life 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 and the other plaintiffs were all convicted in their late teens and early 20s. Indeed, researchers say many people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania and beyond were teenagers or young adults struggling under poverty at the time of the crime and are very different people today.
Prosecutors typically decide whether to pursue a “felony murder” charge that carries a life sentence. In Pennsylvania, 70 percent of people sentenced under the felony murder rule are Black and a disproportionate number come from Philadelphia, according the Center for Constitutional Rights. Overall, Black people are sentenced to life in prison at a rate 18 times higher than white people in Pennsylvania. Latinx people are sentenced to “death by incarceration” at a rate five times higher than whites in the state.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has not yet agreed to rule on the merits of the lawsuit. Instead, the court will decide whether the case can proceed so that plaintiffs can collectively challenge the state ban on parole hearings for those serving life sentences, rather than pursuing their pleas for parole individually. The lawsuit argues that sentencing people to effectively die prison constitutes cruel and unnecessary punishment under the state constitution.
Unlike the plaintiffs in the case, Shoatz was not convicted under the felony murder rule. Shoatz, who is considered both a political prisoner and prisoner of war by supporters, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison after a 1970 attack on a Philadelphia police station.
As they are today, tensions over racist police violence were running high in Philadelphia during the summer of 1970, when Police Chief Frank Rizzo ordered a crackdown on Black liberation groups ahead a national convention of the Black Panther Party. Anger boiled over after police once again killed an unarmed Black youth, and police were attacked in retaliation, leaving one officer injured and another dead. The attack prompted a raid on the Black Panther headquarters and the arrest of multiple activists.
Shoatz went underground but was arrested and convicted of murder two years later; supporters have said he was falsely accused. Shoatz escaped prison with other Black liberationists twice before being hunted by authorities and captured again. The liberationists were called the New African Political Prisoners of War.
Shoatz spent much of his life resisting solitary confinement, inspiring activists in the free world and working for the liberation of people sentenced to die in prison. Shoatz’s supporters say he is now free to rejoin his family during the final stage of his life.
Today, reform efforts to release aging “lifers” and limit or abolish life sentences without parole are underway in a handful of states. Abolitionists say reforms are not enough, and we must reimagine what accountability and support can look like to end mass incarceration and build a world without prisons.