by Suzy Subways
As COVID-19 surges through the state and tears through its prisons, loved ones of incarcerated people are driving to Harrisburg today, calling for Gov. Tom Wolf to use his reprieve power to immediately release all elderly and medically vulnerable people in prison. Loved ones are also asking the Department of Corrections to require prison staff to wear face masks and be tested for COVID-19. As part of a national caravan for health and social justice, the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign worked with local anti-prison groups like the Human Rights Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) to center the survival of people in prison on this day. The car caravan will circle the state capitol and proceed to the governor’s mansion.
Amid the horror that is the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections right now, Black liberation movement political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz may be one of the best examples of how that horror is playing out for elderly prisoners and their families. Maroon is 77 years old and has been fighting stage 4 colon cancer for over a year. After testing positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 11, Maroon was held in a gymnasium with 29 other men—and only one toilet to share between them. Meanwhile, he has had blood in his stool, and his urgent surgery for the cancer is now being denied.
After supporters and loved ones called the governor last week, Maroon was finally moved to the infirmary. His daughter, Theresa Shoatz, says that her father called her on Saturday night to let her know that the room was extremely cold—and that he believes this was intentional, as retribution for the movement’s phone calls to the governor. Shoatz called the infirmary and asked staff to give him a blanket, but she says they responded that they would not do so. Finally, staff gave him blankets later that night. Maroon is wearing Depends, she said, and he has to change them himself but is not able to pull himself up enough to sit up.
The Violence of Keeping the Elderly in Prison
On April 10, Gov. Wolf announced a temporary program to release vulnerable people from prison during the pandemic so that the remaining incarcerated people could practice social distancing. But activists say only about 600 imprisoned community members were released under the program. Why the cold feet? Despite public health recommendations, “violent offenders” were not eligible.
In its report, Decarcerating Correctional Facilities during COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity, and Safety, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine observe that this is bad policy. “People convicted of violent offenses have lower overall recidivism rates for all age groups compared with individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses, though the recidivism rates are particularly lower for people 55 and over,” the report notes. In other words, “violent offenders” are less likely to be arrested and sent to prison again than “non-violent offenders,” and—the common sense seems obvious on this one—when someone is elderly, they are even less likely to get in trouble with the law. The report recommends releasing medically vulnerable people as an “appropriate and necessary mitigation strategy to include in the COVID-19 response in correctional facilities.”
An Elder of #BlackLivesMatter
“Police brutality is the reason our people are inside,” says Russell Shoatz III, Maroon’s son. Maroon has been in prison since 1972 because he was a leader in the fight against police brutality in the 1960s and ’70s. He’s an elder of the most powerful movement this country has ever seen.
Maroon was held in solitary confinement for nearly 30 years, after two escape attempts he made over 40 years ago in the tradition of the maroon communities that escaped enslaved Africans created throughout the Americas. In his book, Maroon the Implacable, he makes this history come alive for younger generations. During his almost half-century in prison, he has mentored dozens of fellow prisoners, some of whom have become leading activists on the inside and outside, including Saleem Holbrook, who is now executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center.
To see the legendary Maroon Shoatz treated this way as a terminally ill (14% of people with stage IV colon cancer are likely to be alive five years after they are diagnosed) elder is horrifying. And who knows how many others are in his shoes? According to Theresa Shoatz, Pennsylvania prisoners have been unable to make phone calls to let people outside know how bad COVID is inside right now.
We cannot let the DOC kill this visionary leader before he sees freedom. His family and community need him home now.
Call, Tweet, Share, Sign On
Maroon’s Global Network—family members, loved ones and supporters of Maroon—is seeking Pennsylvania human rights and criminal justice organizations to sign on to a support letter to Governor Tom Wolf, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, and Attorney General Josh Shapiro demanding his immediate and unconditional release. Please ask groups you are part of or know to sign the letter if they are located in Pennsylvania.
Community members are still needed to call Gov. Wolf’s office to demand Maroon’s release as well, mentioning that he is a COVID-19–positive elderly prisoner. The number is (717) 787-2500.
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement has created a #FreeMaroon social media toolkit to help everyone come up with tweets and Facebook posts to spread the word and pressure the governor and others.
And you can donate to support Maroon’s Global Network here: https://russellmaroonshoats.wordpress.com/donate/
We ask for nothing less than the immediate and unconditional release of Maroon. But we also demand much more. While suffering in innumerable ways on Saturday night, Maroon himself told his daughter to advocate for others. “Maroon wanted to address the other 29 guys left in the gym,” Theresa Shoatz says.
We must fight for everyone in prison now—they are all someone’s loved ones. We must #FreeMaroon.