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Over 100 Pennsylvania Prisoners are Held in Solitary Confinement — With No End in Sight

Shoatz with his sister, Muriel Adam-El

Over 100 Pennsylvania Prisoners are Held in Solitary Confinement — With No End in Sight


Russell Maroon Shoatz says that for 22 years straight he couldn’t sleep for more than three or four hours a night. The restricted housing unit where he lived — a solitary confinement cell, in common parlance — was smaller than most horse stalls, perpetually lit, and often cold during Pennsylvania’s long winters. Another Pennsylvania prisoner, Andre Jacobs, developed a reputation as a whistleblower for reporting correctional officers who abused prisoners; he reportedly spent 17 years straight in isolation. And Daniel Delker, who killed a prison guard in 1973, has been in solitary ever since. When he went in “the hole,” as it’s known, Richard Nixon was president.

Holding a prisoner in solitary for more than 15 consecutive days is a violation of the United Nation’s “Nelson Mandela Rules” for the treatment of prisoners. But in Pennsylvania, people continue to languish in isolation for years — in some cases, with no end in sight. In 2004, the state created what is called a “restricted release list” (RRL) of prisoners who would be kept in solitary indefinitely, pending release approved by the DOC secretary, in writing.

John Wetzel was named secretary in December 2010, and has developed a reputation as a reformer. In 2016, he appeared on CBS News’ 60 Minutes to trumpet the strides his state was making. “More now than [at] any time in the history of our country, we have the right and left agreeing that we’ve, frankly, screwed up the corrections system for 30 years and it’s time to do something different,’’ he said. “It really starts with understanding that a human being’s value isn’t diminished by being incarcerated.’’

But his track record on solitary confinement tells a more complicated story, as illustrated by the restricted release list. A DOC spokeswoman said that 115 people are currently on the RRL — 30 more than there were in 2010.

Pennsylvania DOC policy says prisoners are placed on the RRL for violent behavior against staff or fellow prisoners, including sexual abuse; escape attempts; and posing a “threat to the orderly operation of a facility,” by joining a gang, for instance. There is little transparency on specifics, though. The ACLU of Pennsylvania was ready to take the department to court because officials refused to disclose the RRL list, but the organization stopped short of litigation when DOC finally provided a list of the prisoner’s names last April. Yet the reasons the prisoners were on the list were redacted.

To learn more about who those prisoners were and why they were on the RRL, researchers with the ACLU-PA corresponded with 68 prisoners on the list last summer. Sixty-six of them reported that they had been in solitary for more than a year, 15 for over a decade.

The researchers asked the prisoners why they thought they were placed on the RRL. The answers varied, but common responses included physical altercations with staff or other prisoners, and attempted escapes. One man said, to his understanding, he was in solitary because he was taken off his “mental health medication” upon transfer to a new prison, and told staff he wanted some time apart from other prisoners; he had been in isolation for four-and-a-half years.

Russell Shoatz spent 10 years on the RRL, with prison officials reviewing his placement every 30 to 90 days. But the review committee didn’t give him a detailed explanation for why he couldn’t live among other prisoners until 2012, when he was informed he was a flight risk.

Shoatz, a former Black Panther who was convicted of first-degree murder of a police officer in 1970, was sentenced to life without parole. He successfully escaped from prison twice during his early years of incarceration, landing in solitary for two years after the second escape. But his decades-long stint in solitary didn’t begin until after he began organizing fellow prisoners with life sentences. In 1982, he joined the now-defunct Pennsylvania Association of Lifers, a group of prisoners who worked with their family members to lobby legislators for a law that would eliminate life without parole. A year after he joined, membership numbers swelled from 12 to nearly 110 and his peers appointed Shoatz interim president. On the night of his appointment, prison officials swiftly put him back in the hole. He stayed there for over 30 years, 22 of which were consecutive.

Represented by the Abolitionist Law Center and two other firms, Shoatz filed a lawsuit against the DOC in 2013, arguing that his conditions amounted to a violation of his constitutional protection from cruel and unusual punishment, and that he had not been granted due process to end his isolation. Ultimately, he was moved to the general population a year after the suit was filed, and in 2016 reached a $99,000 settlement with the DOC the week before his trial was scheduled to begin.

“Mr. Shoatz was famous within the Pennsylvania system, so I do think that played into why he was placed into solitary confinement,” said Amy Fettig, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Shoatz wrote political essays, often incisive critiques of mass incarceration, which were published from behind bars. His ultimate removal from solitary may also have been related to his celebrity: His case received national press and organizers across the country advocated on his behalf. “But a lot of people get lost there,” Fettig said.

Fettig points to the cruel irony that many of the symptoms that people in long-term isolation exhibit — anger, paranoia, anxiety — lead to behavior that keeps them there. “Solitary confinement is allegedly used to control behavior in the institution, and in fact, it causes that behavior. It’s this Kafkaesque situation that people get placed into,” she told The Appeal.

Pennsylvania prisoners on the RRL are not the only ones kept in long-term isolation. “I’ve known people in there for 10 years or longer who were just never put on the restricted release list,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center.

“Solitary confinement is allegedly used to control behavior in the institution, and in fact, it causes that behavior.”

Of the 49 states plus the Virgin Islands that responded to a 2015 Yale Law School survey, Pennsylvania ranked thirteenth based on its percentage of prisoners held in solitary — defined by the researchers as confined to a cell for at least 22 hours a day — for 15 consecutive days or longer. But that’s still 1,716 people. Of those, 190 prisoners had been held in solitary for six years or longer. Fifteen states had zero people held in isolation this long.

Amy Worden, press secretary for the PA DOC, declined to directly address the department’s use of long-term solitary confinement, but wrote in an email that, “The DOC is actively implementing the American Correctional Association’s guidelines,” which since 2016 suggest that the ‘classification committee’ or staff review the status of inmates in solitary every seven days for the first 60 days, and at least every 30 days thereafter.

There have been other notable reforms in Pennsylvania, spurred by litigation. In 2013, the Disability Rights Network filed a federal lawsuit against the DOC for its treatment of mentally ill prisoners. Two years later, in a courtsettlement between the two parties, the state agreed to improve conditions for the prisoners on its mental health roster held in segregated housing. The settlement required that prisoners with serious mental illness be allowed at least 20 hours a week out of their cells, regardless of whether they are in solitary or in the residential treatment unit — a sort of in-house psychiatric hospital. And prisoners who aren’t classified as seriously mentally ill upon placement in solitary must be evaluated annually, at a minimum, for psychological deterioration. If a doctor deems it necessary, the prisoner would be moved to the residential treatment unit. A recent assessment by a court monitor determined that the DOC is in compliance with these stipulations, and that monitoring is no longer necessary, Andrew Favini, a staff attorney at the Disability Rights Network told The Appeal.

In a written statement, a DOC spokeswoman said that in partnership with BetaGov, a consulting project for government agencies out of New York University, the department has implemented over 100 pilot projects since 2015 to reduce the violence and misconduct that leads to sanctions such as solitary confinement. These programs range “from the use of aromatherapy and yoga to the introduction of therapy dogs,” and 600 prisoners have been trained to be peer mediators, said Worden. The prisons have also started to implement sanctions that are more consistent and less harsh, following a model known as “Swift, Certain, and Fair” punishment. The goal, she said, is to reduce violence and also the use of solitary. Two trial studies showed that this strategy reduced minor infractions; however, in one study, the test group had more serious infractions than the control group.

But other states have gone further. Since September, prisoners in Colorado who commit serious violations are not isolated for more than 15 days, and are then given therapy or anger management classes, if necessary. Rick Raemisch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, told Frontline last spring that between 2007 and 2013, he reduced the number of people in solitary confinement from roughly 1,500 people to between 130 and 150 at any given time. In Maine, solitary policies were overhauled in 2011 under the leadership of then-Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who later held the same post in New York. Reforms included the increased use of alternative sanctions, such as limiting work opportunities, for all but the most serious infractions. And now, holding a prisoner in solitary for longer than 72 hours requires the commissioner’s personal approval. The state slashed the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement in half over just 18 months.

Grote and his colleagues, along with other civil rights lawyers, would like Pennsylvania to join these states in making more dramatic reforms to solitary confinement. Wetzel “has this image as a reformer,” Grote said. “But a lot of his positions are quite safe, a lot of his reform-y type statements are hollow pieties.”

The Abolitionist Law Center has sued the Pennsylvania DOC on behalf of individual prisoners — with at least one success in addition to Shoatz’s case, and several suits pending. Last month, the Center joined the ACLU and several other firms to file a class action lawsuit challenging the mandatory isolation of Pennsylvania’s 156 prisoners with death sentences.

“The long-term solitary litigation has been piecemeal,” Grote said. “There are not as many lawyers willing to represent the people that we represent.” Despite reforms in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, Grote is not convinced the department will continue to make changes without outside pressure. “The changes were made when they saw the writing on the wall. In other words, they were pushed kicking and screaming.”

Louisiana Denies Parole to Man Behind a Supreme Court Ruling Limiting Life Sentences for Children

U.S. Supreme Court
Stringer via Getty

Louisiana Denies Parole to Man Behind a Supreme Court Ruling Limiting Life Sentences for Children


By all accounts, 71-year-old Henry Montgomery is not the same man he was when he was 17. In 1963, Montgomery skipped school and encountered Charles H. Hurt, a plainclothes sheriff’s deputy, in the woods. In a panic, he shot and killed Hurt with his grandfather’s gun.

A Baton Rouge, Louisiana jury convicted Montgomery of murder and, after an initial death sentence was voided, a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

During his decades at Louisiana’s Angola Prison, Montgomery started a boxing club, joined a church, and kickstarted a literacy program. He worked as a silkscreener and won a number of awards for his job.

Yet on Monday, the Louisiana parole board voted 2 to 1 to keep Montgomery in prison. Why?

“It was Henry Montgomery,” said Kerry Myers, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Parole Project, which represented Montgomery in the parole hearing. “I got the feeling that if it was anyone else besides Henry Montgomery … maybe it would have been different. Maybe the opposition would not have been as strong.”

That’s because Montgomery successfully challenged his five-decade-old life without parole sentence in a landmark 2016 U.S. Supreme Court case. In Montgomery v. Louisiana, SCOTUS held that its previous ruling (Miller v. Alabama)which declared mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional, should be applied retroactively. Montgomery’s retroactivity paved the way to freedom for roughly 2,000 prisoners across the country sentenced as teenagers to life without the possibility of parole. Three hundred are incarcerated in Louisiana.

“Prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption,” wrote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 2016 opinion, “and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

Even after his Supreme Court victory, Montgomery spent two years fighting for a chance at release and completing numerous prerequisites —such as taking 100 hours of pre-release training and developing a certified reentry plan — that Louisiana requires before an inmate can even appear before a parole board.

The decision to deny Montgomery’s parole Monday shocked juvenile justice advocates. But it was also representative of the way Louisiana has skirted the Supreme Court’s instruction to stop condemning children to die in prison.

The Court held in Montgomery and Miller that such sentences should be highly unusual. Because scientists now understand that the human brain does not fully mature until a person is in his or her mid-20s, the ruling states,children and teenagers have an immense capacity to change and become positive forces in society, even if they committed heinous crimes in their youth. Therefore, only “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption” should face life without parole, the Court concluded in Miller.

Louisiana prosecutors, however, seem to believe that most of the juveniles they have sentenced to life without parole are, in fact, irredeemable. The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR) found that prosecutors are seeking to reinstate life without parole sentences for more than one-third of the juvenile lifers eligible for re-sentencing. As LCCR explained in a November press release, who gets a juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentence and who is spared seems dictated solely by the local district attorney’s preferences:

The rate at which DAs are seeking JLWOP varies by jurisdiction, suggesting that a person’s fate can be determined by happenstance of location rather than by their individual circumstances.

Lafourche Parish’s DA is not pursuing JLWOP in any of its five cases, while the West Baton Rouge DA’s Office has filed in all four of its cases, and the 23rd Judicial District in four out of five instances.

In 2016, Caddo and Jefferson Parishes had roughly the same number of people serving illegal JLWOP sentences. Caddo DA James Stewart has filed for JLWOP in only one case, whereas DA Paul Connick has filed in 10 of 24, or 43%, of cases.

Like Jefferson Parish, other districts with the highest numbers of cases are also seeking JLWOP at the highest rates. In East Baton Rouge Parish, DA Hillar Moore is pursuing JLWOP at a rate of 42%. In Orleans Parish, DA Leon Cannizzaro has filed notices in 44% of cases in his district.

“There appears to be basically zero criteria being used to evaluate which case should go forward,” said Jill Pasquarella, an attorney with LCCR.

Indeed, because many of these cases precede current prosecutors by decades, Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro told the Times-Picayune in November that “we’re basically just guessing on these cases.”

“We are trying to make the best decision that we can without really seeing this person,” he said. “I think it puts an unfair burden on the district attorneys.”

Despite his complaint that DAs are ill-equipped to make these decisions, the Louisiana District Attorneys’ Association (LDAA) successfully blockedlegislation last year that would have eliminated JLWOP entirely and put the decision in the hands of the parole board. Because the organization killed the bill, “there’s a practical burden that DAs are now placing on the courts and on public defenders to now defend these cases and hear these cases,” Pasquarella said.

The state must hold resentencing hearings for each case where the DA seeks to reinstate JLWOP, clogging court dockets and costing the state millions.

Meanwhile, newly convicted teenagers are still facing life without parole sentences. Life without parole remains the most common sentence for children convicted of murder in Louisiana; LCCR found that 62 percent of those convicted since 2012 have been sentenced to die in prison.

Still, the fight to get juvenile lifers in front of the Louisiana parole board may ultimately be pointless if the parole board tasked with considering their release denied relief to the man who made such hearings possible.

Montgomery’s hearing reportedly focused on the facts of his crime 54 years ago rather than the man he has become. Ultimately, the board claimed it denied Montgomery parole because he had only taken two classes during his time in prison (Montgomery’s attorney pointed out that no classes were offered to lifers for the first 30 years of his incarceration).

“No one said in that room that Henry was irredeemable or the worst of the worst, which is the criteria for keeping them in prison,” Myers said.

According to the Louisiana Parole Project, the board has denied parole to more than 50 percent of the juvenile lifers who have managed to get a hearing. If that trend continues, another challenge could be in the works.

“The underpinnings of Miller and Montgomery are more than just a perfunctory hearing where you get to hope for release,” Pasquarella said. “If applicants are going to the parole board and being summarily denied without much process, or in great numbers, then that’s going to be a problem. That raises the question, is the parole board hearing the meaningful opportunity for release that the court had in mind?”

Meanwhile, Montgomery’s long battle for freedom isn’t over. He can reapply for parole in two years, though there’s no guarantee the board will grant him another hearing. Still, “he handled it like he’s handled everything in the time he’s been there — stoically,” Myers said. “He’ll get another day.”


Thanks to Cassi Feldman.

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How ‘El Chapo’s’ Attorney is Fighting For His Client’s Right to a Fair Trial

How ‘El Chapo’s’ Attorney is Fighting For His Client’s Right to a Fair Trial


Each day in his small cell in a Manhattan federal prison, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera battles severe headaches and vomiting, his lawyer says. He spends several hours with members of his defense team, reviewing 300,000 pages of discovery to prepare for his upcoming trial on charges including “leading a continuing criminal enterprise,” drug distribution, use of firearms, and money laundering. When he is alone, back in his cell, the Mexican-born Guzmán, the alleged leader of Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking organization, the Sinaloa Cartel, reviews documents on a government-issued laptop. Excluding family and legal visits, Guzmán is locked in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) for 23 hours per day.

Since January 2017, when Guzmán was extradited to the U.S. and admitted to the facility — which was once described as “worse than Guantánamo”—his legal team has repeatedly challenged his extreme confinement as unconstitutional.

In a court hearing on February 15 ahead of his September 2018 trial, Guzmán’s lead attorney, Eduardo Balarezo, asked that his client be able to air his grievances about the conditions of his confinement. Prosecutors objected to the request, arguing he could “use the opportunity to pass messages to the media or others.” U.S. Eastern District Judge Brian Cogan agreed to consider allowing Guzmán to speak at his next court hearing in April, and instructed him to put his complaints into a letter.

Guzmán may be a notorious figure, but he has never been convicted of a crime in the United States, and Balarezo is determined to ensure that his client’s due process rights are not violated.

“Every defendant has a right to a trial, whether he is Joaquín Guzmán or Joe Smith,” Balarezo told The Appeal. “We are optimistic that he will get a fair trial and we believe that if he does, a jury will be able to see through all the chaff and see the reality of this case and not just what the government wants them to see.”

Balarezo says that his client endures bleak conditions at MCC. The area where Guzmán is housed, known as 10 South, is so isolated that some prisoners there have reported deteriorating eyesight, according to the New York Times.In a nearby unit known as 9 South with similarly restrictive conditions, one prisoner wrote to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that temperatures in the cells hover around 50 degrees and that he has observed roaches and insect eggs in his food.

“[Guzmán] is having a great deal of difficulty with the conditions of his confinement,” Balarezo said. “He is having psychological problems, he is having auditory hallucinations. The medical treatment he gets is minimal at best and non-existent at worst.”

In December 2017, a psychologist evaluated Guzmán after Balarezo told the court that his client’s mental health was suffering at MCC.

Balarezo declined to discuss the psychologist’s findings, but he said that she concluded Guzmán suffered from the issues he described “as a result of his confinement.”

The government argues that Guzmán’s extraordinary confinement is necessary to keep him from staging a jailbreak, noting that he twice escaped from high-security prisons in Mexico.

Federal prosecutors use the same reasoning to argue that discovery in the Guzmán case should be highly protected. The defense team is forbidden from taking discovery out of the country or showing it to third parties such as associates or family members, who could potentially help his team fight the government’s case. The government has also redacted significant portions of the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents it has provided to the defense.

“The majority of the discovery is not identifiable in the sense of there are no dates, names,” Balarezo said. “Also, because much of it is heavily redacted, it is basically useless at this point.”

Prosecutors have hinted they are planning to recount, in detail, Guzmán’s rise from a marijuana farmer to the head of a cartel that allegedly raked in $14 billion over four continents.

Balarezo says the government’s case relies primarily upon cooperators who have disclosed information about the cartel’s operations. The defense team doesn’t know the identity of most of the witnesses who will be called to testify during the trial, excluding two brothers who used to operate within the Sinaloa cartel, Margarito and Pedro Flores, who are reportedly expected to be star witnesses. Both received 14 years in prison instead of life sentences for handing over covertly recorded conversations with Guzmán.

Balarezo says their testimony is not to be trusted because they benefit from testifying against Guzmán.

“We believe their testimony will be suspect and tainted and we hope the jury sees it the way it is,” he said. “It’s going to be obvious that most of these people are admitted criminals. They will be individuals who have committed murders, who have done horrendous things, who have signed onto the government’s team to trade their testimony in exchange for more lenient sentences.”

Making the case even more challenging for Balarezo, Judge Cogan ruled in early February that an anonymous and partially sequestered jury would be empaneled in order to protect jurors from alleged Guzmán associates. Balarezo unsuccessfully argued that an anonymous jury would give jurors the impression his client is dangerous and therefore guilty.

“This is a very difficult case mainly because of the restrictions on my client and on what we can do,” he said. “However, we’re going to do the best we can to make sure the government doesn’t just steamroll him with a case that’s primarily composed of cooperator testimony.”

A spokesman for the Eastern District of New York declined to comment and referred In Justice Today to court documents.

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