Former Philly Black Panther Serving Life Sentence Wins $99K Settlement

Russell Shoatz, in prison for the 1970 murder of a Philly cop, had sued the state over his more than 20 consecutive years in solitary confinement. He vows to use the money to help prisoners reenter society.

Russell Shoatz III and Theresa Shoatz celebrate with their father, convicted cop killer Russell Shoatz Jr.

Russell Shoatz III and Theresa Shoatz celebrate with their father, Russell Shoatz Jr.

Just as the New Black Panther Party is enjoying a newfound surge in publicity, a former member of the old Black Panther Party is enjoying a legal victory against Pennsylvania.

Way back in 1973, Russell Shoatz was sentenced to life in prison for the 1970 murder of Frank Von Colln, a sergeant in the Fairmount Park Police Department, later folded into the Philadelphia Police Department by then-Mayor Frank Rizzo

Beginning in 1992, Shoatz was kept in solitary confinement, where he remained consecutively for more than 20 years. In 2013, Shoatz sued the state, arguing that his continued placement in solitary confinement and the prison’s administrative review process violated his Constitutional rights.

With the trial set to begin on Monday, a settlement was announced. According to Shoatz’s lawyers at the Abolitionist Law Center, which has also represented Mumia Abu-Jamal, Pennsylvania would pay Shoatz $99,000 and agree to stop punishing him for past acts with solitary confinement.

Shoatz released the following statement about the settlement:

I have nothing but praise for all of those who supported me and my family for all of the years I was in Solitary Confinement, as well as helped to effect my release. Since joining the struggle for Human Rights in the mid 1960s, I have always chosen to fight! Frederick Douglass was right when he said ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’ So have no doubt that I see this Settlement as anything but the latest blow struck, and you rest assured that I will continue in the struggle for Human Rights. Straight Ahead!

So how did Shoatz, 72, wind up in solitary confinement for so long in the first place? Well, murdering a police officer is one way to ensure that you won’t have many friends in the Department of Corrections.

But Shoatz’s crimes didn’t end there.

He escaped from prison more than once in the 1970s, before he found himself in solitary confinement. On one occasion, he injured prison guards with a knife. Another time, he went to a prison guard’s home and kidnapped the guard, his wife, and their 5-year-old son, tying them all to a tree for hours. For that incident, he was convicted of kidnapping and robbery, among other offenses.

Shoatz’s battle against his solitary confinement was longstanding. He initiated another legal action against the state in the 1990s, and a three-judge federal appeals court panel upheld his confinement, calling him a “threat to security” in its 2000 decision. He is described by supporters as a “political prisoner.”

Shoatz and his family and attorneys have claimed that solitary confinement has adversely affected his mental health. In the 1970s, prior to his commitment to solitary, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In more recent years, scientists and policy-makers have given serious thought to the effect of long-term solitary confinement on the human mind, and Pennsylvania is in the midst of reforms on the use of solitary on prisoners.

The murder of Von Colln came at a tense time between Philadelphia police and the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, both of which had Shoatz among their membership. Von Colln was ambushed by Shoatz and others while he sat in a guardhouse in West Philadelphia. Police reported that six other Philadelphia cops were shot that same week. Rizzo, then police commissioner, described the situation as “anarchy.”

Shoatz’s son says his dad wants to use the money to help released convicts reenter society.

“No money can make up for what they did to my daddy,” says daughter Theresa Shoatz, who claims that her father was systematically abused while in solitary confinement, including by Charles Graner. Name sound familiar? Graner went from Pennsylvania corrections officer to the man at the center of the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq.

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