By his 70th birthday in 2013, Russell Maroon Shoatz had spent nearly 30 years in extreme solitary confinement. A prisoner in Pennsylvania’s Restricted Housing Unit (RHU), Shoatz spent 23 hours each day confined to a 7-by-12-foot cell. He ate all his meals alone inside that cell. He slept under lights that were never turned off. He was not allowed any educational, vocational, or group programming. Five days a week, he was permitted to spend one hour in a fenced-in exercise cage. Each time he left his cell, he was strip-searched and placed in shackles. When his family came to visit, he was placed in a booth and made to communicate with them from behind plexiglass. He could not hug his children or hold his grandchildren. Shoatz remained in handcuffs and leg irons during visits.
In 2013, Shoatz filed suit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC). He sought not only an end to his indefinite solitary confinement but also to receive monetary damages for decades of pain and suffering. He argued that prolonged placement in isolation deprived him of numerous basic human needs, including environmental stimulation, social interaction, psychological health, emotional well-being, physical health, sleep, exercise nutrition, and fundamental human dignity. He also argued that the prison had violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and his 14th Amendment right to due process. The DOC argued that Shoatz was subjected to the same conditions as any other prisoner in solitary.
On February 12, federal judge Cynthia Reed Eddy of the US District Court of Western Pennsylvania ruled that Shoatz’s suit should be decided by a jury trial. “While Shoatz may have been subjected to the same conditions as other inmates on administrative custody status, the fact remains that Shoatz endured these conditions for 22 consecutive years,” she wrote in her decision. Furthermore, she noted that the Supreme Court had stated, in Hutto v. Finney, that solitary confinement may be unconstitutional “depending on the duration of the confinement and the conditions thereof.”
Shoatz’s is an individual lawsuit, meaning that, on the surface, the outcome affects him and him alone. But it will also be the first trial by jury that challenges long-term solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment for any and everyone, not just vulnerable populations such as the mentally ill, juveniles, or pregnant people.
“Courts have failed to set strict and enforceable limits to solitary confinement,” noted Bret Grote, Shoatz’s attorney and legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, adding that previous cases have been defeated or settled. (In 2009, prisoners who had been held for decades in the Security Housing Units at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, filed suit challenging their prolonged solitary confinement. They were granted class-action status in 2014 and was scheduled to go to trial late this year. However, the suit was settled in September 2015.) The outcome may set judicial precedent that others can cite when bringing their own litigation against being held in solitary for long periods of time. According to a 2014 study, between 80,000 to 100,000 people are held in isolation, so the impact of his suit may be far reaching.