An interview with Dan Kovalik and Bret Grote
By Angola 3 News
Earlier this week, on Wednesday, May 8, lawyers for Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz filed a federal lawsuit regarding his placement in solitary confinement for over 22 consecutive years. The written complaint, directed at Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and the Superintendents of SCI-Greene, where Shoatz was last held, and SCI-Mahanoy, where he was transferred to on March 28, 2013, states that this “is an action for injunctive, declaratory and monetary relief for violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.”
Last month, when a 30-day action campaign was launched calling for Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz’s immediate release from solitary confinement, the campaign promised to file this litigation if Maroon had not been transferred into general population by the morning of May 8. On Thursday, May 9 the lawsuit was announced at a press conference was held in Pittsburgh, outside the City-County Building.
An update released on May 1 argues that the campaign “can already claim a victory” because “Maroon’s case and his work has received more attention over the past month that at any time during his incarceration.” One new article about Maroon was published by Solitary Watch and co-authored by Kanya D’Almeida and Bret Grote, who is also interviewed below. D’Almeida and Grote write that maroon’s “only time in the general prison population in the last 30 years was an 18-month stint spent at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth that ended in 1991.” Furthermore, they note that Maroon has had only one violation since 1989 and “his most recent violation was in 1999, when he covered a vent in his cell that was blowing cold air in an attempt to stay warm.”
Underscoring their argument that Maroon’s confinement is politically motivated, they write that “in 1982 he was released into the general prison population at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Pittsburgh. Upon return to the general population Maroon became involved with the Pennsylvania Association of Lifers (PAL), a prison-approved organization that was supposed to further the interests of life-sentenced prisoners… Maroon’s reputation and the respect other prisoners had for him led to a dramatic increase in participation in the PAL. More than 100 prisoners would attend meetings in the early part of 1983. On the night that the old leadership was impeached and Maroon appointed interim president pending new elections, he and other new leaders of the PAL were placed in solitary confinement. The others were eventually released from solitary. Maroon remains in isolation to this day.”
Other recent media coverage includes a new interview with Maroon, published by New Clear Vision, and conducted by Vanderbilt University Philosophy Professor Lisa Guenther. “Ironically,” Maroon writes in the interview, “the segment of the population that presently has the most potential to effect change in the PIC is those who usually have no direct — bodily — connection to this system. That is the taxpayers among the ninety nine percent. Without their massive yearly outlays of billions in taxes (taxes they’ve been bamboozled into believing serve a good purpose, but instead serve [to] keep active a police state machine) the whole house of cards would collapse!”
Last month, in part one of our report on Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz, we interviewed activist Matt Meyer and Maroon’s daughter, Theresa Shoatz. Here in part two, we interview activist Bret Grote and Maroon’s lawyer Dan Kovalik, taking a closer look at the lawsuit filed on May 8, the broader use of litigation to confront human rights abuses in US prisons, and the political economy of what Grote identifies as the ‘imperial police state.’
Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh. He was counsel for Maroon in his first federal case challenging his solitary confinement.
Bret Grote is an organizer with the Human Rights Coalition, the Executive Director of the newly founded Abolitionist Law Center, and a member of the legal team for Russell Maroon Shoatz.
Angola 3 News: An April 15 update reported on Maroon’s transfer from SCI-Greene to SCI-Mahanoy and accompanying statements from Secretary Wetzel that he was moved for the purpose of eventually being transferred into general population, where he will then, among other things, be able to physically embrace family and friends during visits. Have there been any more developments since the April 15 update?
Dan Kovalik: Yes, on May 2, Maroon was told that he would be released to general population within 90 days of his coming to SCI-Mahanoy, which was March 29. Therefore, if all goes well, and with continued pressure, Maroon could be in the general population by July.
A3N: At this point, following the 30-day campaign, how can our readers most effectively offer their support?
DK: We believe that continued calls and letter writing to Secretary Wetzel, as well as letters to the editors of local Pennsylvania newspapers could help to ensure that Maroon is finally released into the general population.
A3N: How have authorities officially justified keeping Maroon in solitary confinement all these years?