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Human Rights

The U.S.’s 64-Square-Foot “Torture Chambers”

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 19 2013 (IPS) - He has not had human contact or a good night’s sleep in nearly three decades. Every single day, he wakes to the sound of metal doors clanging open and a pair of disembodied hands pushing a tray of food through a slot into his 64-square-foot cell.

L to R: Kimberly Richardson (of the Peoples Institute for Survival), Robert King (who spent 31 years in isolation), and Theresa Shoatz, whose father Russell Maroon Shoatz is also in long-term solitary confinement. Credit: Ann Harkness/cc by 2.0

L to R: Kimberly Richardson (of the Peoples Institute for Survival), Robert King (who spent 31 years in isolation), and Theresa Shoatz, whose father Russell Maroon Shoatz is also in long-term solitary confinement. Credit: Ann Harkness/cc by 2.0

For the next 23 hours, he will stare at the same four walls. If he is lucky, he’ll be escorted, shackled at his ankles and wrists, into a “yard” – an enclosure only slightly larger than his cell – for an hour of solitary exercise.

This is how Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a prisoner in the restricted housing unit at the State Correctional Institute (SCI) Frackville in northern Pennsylvania, has spent the past 22 consecutive years.

On Thursday, Shoatz’s lawyers submitted a communication to Juan E. Mendez, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, urging him to inquire into why a “father, grandfather and great grandfather” is being held in extreme isolation despite having a near-perfect disciplinary record for over 20 years.

The appeal comes on the heels of a surge in public debate on the practice of solitary confinement in the United States, where on any given day an estimated 81,000 men, women and children are held in some form of “restricted housing” unit, according to Federal Bureau of Justice statistics.

Authorities in each state have a myriad of euphemisms for the practice: administrative segregation, secure housing units (SHUs), “supermax” facilities, protective custody. Whatever the language, critics say the basic conditions remain the same: extreme isolation and sensory deprivation for years at a time.

According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the restrictions imposed in “maximum security” facilities often “exceed the fathomable. In Pennsylvania’s most restrictive units, for example, prisoners have all the usual supermax deprivations plus some that seem gratuitously cruel: they are not permitted to have photographs of family members or newspapers and magazines.”

Mendez has already affirmed that holding a human being in isolation for a period exceeding 15 days constitutes a violation of the U.N. Convention Against Torture (CAT).

Back in 2011, his office called for a complete global ban on the use of solitary confinement “except in the most extreme circumstances and for as short a time as possible”, citing numerous studies – some dating back decades, others as recent as Amnesty International’s 2012 report ‘The Edge of Endurance’ – that have documented the long-lasting psychological impacts resulting from even a few days of social separation.

The “Angola Three” – 100 Years of Solitude

Just last week, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a press release calling on the United States to end the indefinite isolation imposed on a Louisiana prisoner by the name of Albert Woodfox since 1972.

Woodfox, along with Herman Wallace and Robert King – three political activists sentenced to the Angola State Prison on murder charges that rights groups say were trumped up because of their penchant for speaking out about racial segregation in the prison – spent a combined 100 years in isolation.

King was finally released in 2001 after languishing for a full 31 years in total isolation. On Oct. 1, Wallace’s sentence was overturned when a Baton Rouge judge ruled that his initial trial had been unconstitutional. A day after leaving the prison, Wallace succumbed to cancer, after having spent 41 years in the hole.

“The circumstances of the incarceration of the so-called Angola Three clearly show that the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. penitentiary system goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law,” the independent investigator noted earlier this month.

This past August, a hunger strike involving over 30,000 prisoners protesting conditions in restricted housing units at the Pelican Bay State Prison in California prompted the rapporteur to make an urgent appeal to the U.S. government to “eliminate the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement under all circumstances”, stressing that the average U.S. prisoners banished to the hole typically stays there roughly 7.5 years – “far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law.”

Harold Engel, an attorney with over 43 years of experience and a retired partner of the global corporate law firm Reed Smith, said he co-signed the appeal Thursday in the hopes that an investigation undertaken by the office of the special rapporteur, housed at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, will bring an end to indefinite isolation.

“I first became involved in this case because my daughter told me about Shoatz’s situation and I found it abhorrent,” Engel told IPS.

“As I learned more I realised there wasn’t any clear law on the question of whether keeping someone in solitary confinement under conditions that Shoatz has been kept in violates the eighth amendment of the U.S. constitution [prohibiting the government from imposing cruel and unusual punishment] – which, in my opinion, it does.”

Speaking to IPS under condition of anonymity, an inmate who spent several years in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison before being released back into the general population said his life was measured out in a series of arbitrary numbers: he was permitted one hour of exercise on five days out of the week; he was allowed three meals a day but zero contact visits with his family. His cell contained a single cot and one steel sink. Showers were taken thrice weekly, overseen by guards.

“Getting through each day felt like hewing a single stone from a mountain of despair,” he said.

Bret Grote, an activist who has worked for over six years with the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) – an advocacy group comprised predominantly of prisoners’ families, ex-prisoners and their supporters – says he and others have documented “hundreds upon hundreds of instances of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment inside the solitary confinement units of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC).”

“The approximately 2,500 prisoners warehoused in solitary by the PA DOC are held in units where physical abuse, psychological deterioration, retaliation for exercising constitutionally-protected rights, food deprivation, extreme social isolation, severely reduced environmental stimulation, theft and destruction of property, obstruction of access to the courts, and racist abuse are normative features,” Grote told IPS.

As Shoatz’s lawyers await an official response from the U.N. rapporteur, they are holding out hope that a full investigation into his case could also bring some respite for the tens of thousands of others enduring such conditions.

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  • ABobserver

    Why no mention of what he was convicted of? The murder of a policeman. Why no mention of his tso escapes and the reason he is in the Super Max situation? Coincidence?

  • affirmingflame

    No, irrelevance. The Unites States cannot call itself a civilised country preaching to the rest of the world about freedom and democracy, and have such degrading and inhuman conditions for people who have broken the law. It also cannot claim to be a country of justice when an old man gets solitary for 22 years, while bankers who caused the greatest global financial crisis in human history, and caused suffering and distress to millions get away with paying a settlement, while its executives continue to enjoy million dollar bonuses. Americans should wake the f^^K up!

  • Cdb Spender

    The article never gets to the part where …”Shoats was convicted of murdering a police officer(Jack Powers) in Pennsylvania and was sentenced to life imprisonment.” The article never mentions the prison escape the shotgun he took from the gard or hostage he took (Joseph Redmond). I wonder if Jack Powers ever got to be a grandfather or great grandfather like Shoats did. Its amazing how Pam Johnson a “reporter” managed to miss all this.

    Rot there.. that is what punishment is.

  • Pam Johnson

    As Juan Mendez pointed out in his observation report to the Human Rights Council this past March (, the escapes happened more that 20 years ago.

    After each escape, Shoatz served his time in solitary confinement and was put back in the general prison population. Ironically, he remained in general population until he was elected to be the president of the Pennsylvania Lifers’ Association. That same day, the prison administration deemed him a “threat” to the general population, and he has been in solitary confinement ever since.

    According to prison records, Shoatz has had only ONE disciplinary infraction in over 22 years: covering a vent in his cell that was blowing cold air into his room in the middle of winter.

    As for the original conviction, Shoatz stood accused of being an “accomplice” in the murder of a park guard (NOT “Jack Powers” but Frank Von Collin). For this he was slapped with a life sentence, but that sentence never included extreme isolation.

    The point the reporter is trying to make, as many of the reporters covering the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike have done, is that the use of solitary confinement has very little to do with the original sentence that landed these men/women/children in prison in the first place. The issue is the prevalence of these “prisons within prisons”, where states are holding thousands of people for periods far exceeding those deemed acceptable by international law.

    Thank you,

    Pam Johnson

  • George Habash

    Very revealing and informative feature. Kudos to IPS. It just goes to prove how fake and empty is the US claim that it is a model of democracy and good governance. Hypocrisy laid bare for all to see.

  • lightweaver1213

    As an American, I am not agreeable to our judicial system issuing sentences of a) life without parole, b) prolonged solitary confinement, c) incarceration of an inmate who is in the throes of death (place on house arrest instead). America is far too lenient with criminals. They pass a bill allowing the death penalty, but do not wish to impose it. They don’t consider what second/third world countries do to criminals, i.e. cutting off of hands, arms, or worse. How is it religious preferences can dictate a beheading? Shame on our government who allowed Mr. Shoatz to be incarcerated with that type of mental and physical abuse in a sentence that supassed a decade.

  • against affirmingflame

    You should wake up and get an education affirmingflame and not throw america under the bus. Did u read his case court documents? Know what he did? Didnt think so

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