A state prison inmate who was the subject of an intensive, two-week manhunt in Washington and Greene counties in the fall of 1977 filed a lawsuit this week against three state officials, alleging that their policies kept him in solitary confinement for 21 years, despite no recent history of misconduct.
Russell Shoats, 69, who also spells his name Shoatz, sued in the Western District of U.S. District Court, aided by attorneys Richard L. Etter of the Reed Smith law firm, Dustin McDaniel of the Abolitionist Law Center and Daniel M. Kovalik.
Their complaint said that Shoats, who is from Philadelphia, was sentenced to life without parole in 1972, and escaped twice, in 1977 and 1980. Since 1983, except for a brief stint in a federal penitentiary, he has been in solitary confinement, in a small cell for 23 hours each day, according to the complaint.
“The continuous, prolonged exposure to the brutal conditions of solitary confinement have caused Shoats physical and mental harm and anguish,” according to the complaint, which characterized that as a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The complaint asked for an end to the solitary confinement, compensatory and punitive damages and payment of attorney fees and costs. It named as defendants state Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel, SCI- Mahanoy Superintendent John Kerestes and Louis J. Folino, superintendent at SCI-Greene, where Shoats was previously held.
Shoats is now an inmate at SCI- Mahanoy, Schuykill County, about 50 miles northwest of Reading.
A Department of Corrections spokeswoman declined to comment.
The complaint said that Shoats in 1983 became interim president of the inmate organization Pennsylvania Association of Lifers. That night, according to the complaint, Shoats was placed in solitary confinement.
Since 1991, he has not been out of that status, and he has been placed on a restricted release list, which means that only Wetzel can return him to general population, according to the complaint. It indicates one misconduct in the last 23 years, for covering a cell vent in an attempt to stay warm.
The case has been assigned to U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia R. Eddy.
Shoats has been backed by the Pittsburgh Human Rights Coalition.
Shoats, at age 34, was serving his life sentence for the 1970 killing of a Philadelphia park policeman when he escaped from SCI-Huntingdon. Authorities said he kidnapped a guard and his family who lived about a half-mile from the institution, stole a shotgun and hunting knife from their home, and forced the family to drive south and west.
The car broke down Sept. 27, 1977, near Cokeburg, where the family said Shoats tied them to a tree and headed into the woods. More than 100 law enforcement officers converged on southeastern Washington County and northern Greene County, conducting a manhunt that ended near Beallsville Oct. 11 after a carjacking in Marianna.
Shoats said he survived by foraging corn and crabapples and capturing rabbits and a turtle.
Shoats was charged with kidnapping, recklessly endangering another person and aggravated assault.
At his arraignment, he called himself “a runaway slave. You can tell everyone the slave got caught and he’s going back to the plantation.”
On the order of Washington County Court, Shoats was sent to SCI- Farview for a psychiatric exam. In recent writings on the Internet, he calls himself Russell Maroon Shoats, Black Liberation Army prisoner of war and a founding member of the Black Unity Council, a group that merged with the Philadelphia Chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1969.
In May 1979, Washington County Court dismissed its charges against Shoats, transfering jurisdiction to Philadelphia County so he could continue to serve his life sentence on the first-degree murder conviction.