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    PloughCast 16: The End of Rage; Prison and Radicalism

    Beyond Borders, Part 4

    By Ashley Lucas, Russell Shoatz III, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    October 11, 2021

    About This Episode

    In 1972, Russell Maroon Shoatz went to prison for the murder of a police officer. He spent twenty-nine years in solitary confinement. Ashley Lucas, whose own father was imprisoned when she was growing up, reported and wrote a deep-dive piece on Shoatz’s life, his ongoing activism on behalf of Black liberation, and his relationship with his family.

    Pete and Susannah speak with Ashley about the process of writing the piece, and about the various issues that Shoatz’s life and story bring up. Can we acknowledge the wrongness of the murder, the pain of the murdered man’s family, and at the same time see the man behind the convict?

    The episode also features Russell’s son, Russell III. He tells the story of the two fathers in his life: the imprisoned former Black Panther, and the police officer/minister who adopted him.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    I: Russell Shoatz III: A Tale of Two Fathers

    Susannah Black: Welcome back to The PloughCast. This is episode 4 of the series covering the latest issue of the magazine “Beyond Borders.”

    Peter Mommsen: Today we are going to get into some really heavy stuff, questions of justice and violence: that is important, so hold on. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor of Plough Quarterly.

    Susannah Black: And I’m Susannah Black, senior editor of Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: So this is the episode where we talk about some of the topics that have concerned us most since the death of George Floyd one and a half years ago: issues of crime, prison, policing, solitary confinement, racism and racial justice, and the legitimacy of politically motivated violence. And we also talk a lot about what it means to find healing after suffering. A central piece in our new issue of Plough, Beyond Borders, is also the longest piece we’ve ever published. It’s by Ashley Lucas, it’s called “The End of Rage,” and it’s the story of Russell Maroon Shoatz, an imprisoned Black Panther, who’s been in prison since 1972, in solitary confinement for almost 30 years of that time. And we’re also going to hear from the son of Russell Shoatz, Russell Shoatz III, from a conversation he had with the author, Ashley Lucas, up here at Fox Hill several weeks ago.

    Susannah Black: So, Pete, when I first heard that we were doing this piece, there were a lot of questions that I had. How did you know about this story at all, how did you know Russell?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I first met Russell, the dad, in a Pennsylvania prison cell – well, in a visiting room of a prison, about 20 years ago. At that time, his son, Russell the third, who again will appear in this podcast in a few minutes, was my co-worker and co-founder of a magazine I was working on then, BLU Magazine, it was my first journalistic, kind of, project in my early twenties. And he told me about his dad, we were both involved at that time in work around prisons and police brutality. And he told me about his dad, a former Black Panther, who at that point had already been locked up for an insane amount of time – had been in solitary for I think 5 or 6 years at that point. And when I met him, it was just fascinating – there’s a little bit about it in the editorial that introduces this issue, “Beyond Borders.” He had this incredible one hour a day pushup, squat routine that kept him physically fit and he was just amazingly mentally alert. He was fascinated with the history of the Bruderhof community where I came from, interested in liberation struggles around the world, and he just struck me as this incredibly alive, fascinating person, who I then learned a lot from and corresponded with for several years.

    Susannah Black: So it was in part through your upbringing in the Bruderhof and the values that you learned there that you were kind of led to be involved in this kind of prison and justice work. The Bruderhof doesn’t only work with prisoners, it works with the police to a surprising extent, for a community that – you know, you guys are pacifists, so to just sort of settle the question of political violence – we are an anti-political violence magazine.

    Peter Mommsen: We are a magazine committed to Christian nonviolence. Absolutely.

    Susannah Black: And so how does that all work with both visiting prisoners and working with the police?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, it is absolutely true that we work extensively with the police and have for years, notably with the Breaking the Cycle Program, which we, in partnership with Plough, but primarily our community, operates in public schools in the tri-state area, New York, New Jersey, where with the NYPD’s support, we have speakers talking about non-violent conflict resolution. We also have pastors from our communities who act as chaplains for the police forces – that’s a whole other topic that I won’t get into now. But the basic idea, which I think is essentially the Christian idea, that we love our neighbor, that we’re there, ready to serve everyone, be that a police officer who upholds the law and puts him- or herself in danger to do so, or be that someone incarcerated, who is equally a human being made in the image of God whom we are to love and care for as ourselves. So I think that explains how you can do both, how you can care about both, how you can try to be family to both. And I think actually many Christians and Christian churches do that, but we probably all ought to do that a lot more. That paradoxical nature that you don’t have to choose whether you’re going to fly the Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter flag as mutually exclusive is actually one of the most strange things about the Gospel – one of the most wonderful things about the Gospel.

    Susannah Black: Yes, like when we consider Christ’s commands to visit the prisoner, when we consider visiting of prisoners as one of the corporal works of mercy – those aren’t necessarily prisoners who are innocent, or people who are unjustly imprisoned. They’re people who are in prison, and justly or unjustly, that’s a terrible place to be and they’re human beings. That sort of balance between holding the value of law-enforcement officers and the human value of prisoners, is actually pretty well struck in the piece itself.

    Peter Mommsen: “The End of Rage,” again, is the title of the piece. Well, I think any truly-told story is going to have – not even a balance – as in one against the other, as the truth of the humanity of all, both of the incarcerated person and their family, and in this case, of the police officer whose killing he participated in fifty plus years ago.

    Susannah Black: I also remember when you pitched this initially to Ashley Lucas, the author of the story – I don’t think we’re going to get into this as much with her today – but you pitched it as the story of two fathers. And so your friend Russell III has two men he considers as fathers.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, the proximate catalyst for the story was a conversation with Russell III, the son of the imprisoned Russell, that I had about three or four years ago, when he told me this amazing experience of his other father. And let’s hear Russell tell us about that. And Russell, of course you’ve done a lot of work too with the families of the incarcerated. I remember attending in September with my daughter down in Philadelphia – it was really striking just the kind of support group you’ve built for those who feel like they can never their family member, the Mother’s Day events you’ve done – could you tell a little bit about that, how you got into it, and what’s become important to you over the years of working with families who have somebody in prison?

    Russell Shoatz III: Yeah. I just want to thank you, Pete, and your daughter, and the Bruderhof for coming to that family of prisoners event. It was in West Philadelphia, on Fifty-Second Street. It was in the hood, but we have a full farm there, a little Bruderhof there. We have our animals, with our horses, with our green and our patio, and tiny houses that we’re building there. Pete came to support the One Art Community Center when we did a family prisoners’ dinner. We do a lot of work around families of the incarcerated, simply because I’m part of a family of the incarcerated, and that is work I’ll be doing for the rest of my life. The intersection is obviously my father, but that isn’t the end of that work and how it comes about.

    I think it’s super important for us, in our communities and as individuals, that we put proper energy into this work, that we do our due diligence. It’s not just ideology; action is key, and probably more imperative than our ideas around liberation, around religion, around the things that ground us or base us. It’s not just talk. It’s not just a book; we’re actually manifesting those things from whatever it is that you say that you believe, in everyday actions in community and as individuals. That’s a big part of my work; I’m just trying to daily manifest what it is that I say I believe.

    For years, even the years that I produced BLU Magazine with the Bruderhof, I never really felt 110 % comfortable with the duality, the dichotomy, the intricacies of the fact that I was literally raised by a man of the cloth who was also a police officer. There’s not many police officers that are men of the cloth, period, just period. My childhood friend – we were in first grade, doing the “bring your mom and dad to school to talk about their job.” And his dad comes in with the police uniform on. I hang out with this kid all the time. I’m young, so I can’t differentiate between Panthers and BLA members, and police, whatever. I’m a kid.

    Claude Papa Barnes, a Philadelphia police officer (retired) and bishop of the Church of Faith on North 38th Street

    Claude “Papa” Barnes, a Philadelphia police officer (retired) and bishop of the Church of Faith on North 38th Street Image from the Philadelphia Tribune

    To make a long story short, this guy knows my dad. He knows my dad’s case. He knows who I am as a child, and he invites me over. Me and his son do homework together all the time. And he says, come on over, do some homework. So, I come over, it’s pizza. That’s cool. There’s pizza. I love pizza. Everybody loves pizza as a kid. So, after we do our homework, I’m about to get out of there. And he says, “Hey, you coming over tomorrow?” I’m like, “Nah, probably not.” He’s like, “Well, we’re going to have pizza again tomorrow.”

    “You’re going to have pizza again tomorrow?” With a police officer standing with a pizza pie, a pizza and a police officer. I said, “Yeah, that’s a bet. I’ll see you. … And what about the day after that? Pizza on a third day?” “Oh, we got pizza every day if you want it.” We’ll be doing math every day, then! And so that relationship grew into him not just mentoring me, but this whole block, Fifty-Second and Delancey, at that time one of the biggest drug blocks in Philadelphia. He comes out and scrapes up the dead bodies of the young who’ve been shot in the middle of the street, and he continues mentoring. He continues trying to get people to go to church and all that, but he never put any pressure on me to go to church. He never put any pressure on me to not be on his block, doing the things in the street that I shouldn’t have been doing. No pressure, but always mentoring, like, “What are you doing out here this time of night?”

    This interaction was tough on me in the context of me trying to embody a specific type of ideas and ideologies that are put out around people like myself and my dad – who you are, what you should be associating with, who you should be associating with. And probably about five years ago, I just grasped the ability to be able to say, “This is my non-biological father. He’s a police officer and a minister. And I support him in the movement the same way that I support my biological father. And you need to do the same.” We had always had conversations about my father, but this brought him to a space where he was saying to me, “What is it that I need to do for your father as a police officer? What is it that I need to say as a pastor? What is it I need to say as a bishop to your father, for your father, in a letter, in a visit? Whatever it is I need to do, I’m here for you to do that.”

    That is a kind of condensed version of Papa Barnes. And I really actually don’t feel comfortable having this conversation about him without him being here – we all tried very hard to get him here, but moving forward, he is an integral part of Maroon. He’s an integral part of the Shoatz family. He’s an integral part of just who I am developmentally. I really can’t say enough about the intersection of him and my father, and having more than two fathers, but him being probably at a strong number two, and just how to embrace that all.

    Now I’m very happy to say my father is a police officer. And he’s not the police officer that you think about. He’s not the cop that you all know. Half the cops that you all know and that people support, they don’t have it. They can’t cut it. They aren’t police that have a spiritual context. They aren’t police that go up and scrape up the dead bodies off the block. They aren’t the police that stayed in their community and didn’t move out.

    They aren’t the police that stand up against police brutality that they see happening. They aren’t the police that stand up and say, “Hey, that’s not a proper code of conduct. I’m crossing the blue line.” So, I’ve been afraid to say who this officer is for all of these years for all of the wrong reasons.

    I feel it imperative for communities like the Bruderhof to do the internal struggle and work to help us confront these issues. A community has a bigger voice than individuals. The community has the ability to leverage the state; the community has the ability to leverage police officers. The community has the ability to leverage writers and other artisans. In all communities there is a responsibility to do something. Now what the “do” is, how the “do” is done, is a different question, but that accountability is there. It does not go away. It doesn’t get any smaller. It doesn’t stop crying out to you to challenge yourself to figure where the community lands on these questions. Not to land on the question is unacceptable.

    Pete met my dad when my dad was of the mindset of a lot of political prisoners, like Black Panthers and BLA members at that time. They were just like: “Religion is the opiate of the masses. Thanks, Bruderhof, for bringing me out of the hole, and we’re cool, and we love writing to the kids, and we want to support the kids, and we want to do all of that. But at the end of the day, I’m about liberation, and liberation and theology don’t really mix.”

    So he was one of these people who just was kind of like, “eh, spirituality.” When he came into prison he studied Islam and then found that it had its schisms in prison, as everything has in prison. Some people did a lot of things Islamically that resonated with him; some totally didn’t resonate with him. A warden was murdered because he wouldn’t let them have prayer. He was feeding them pork sandwiches intentionally. My dad wasn’t interested in that kind of Islam.

    Recently he’s gone through the removal of his upper and lower intestines, through stage four colon cancer and rectal cancer, through having Covid, all of that medical trauma, and a lot of times medical trauma brings us to spirituality; it makes you recognize your mortality. I think we all should question our mortality before that moment comes, before medical trauma has to make us question why are we here? How long are we here? What are we going to do while we’re here? If we die tomorrow, what have we done? Those questions rushed at him and he said, “I need to think about my spirituality, my connection to the All.”

    So, he has embraced Islam, and a whole different outlook on what struggle means to him, what liberation theology means to him, what that would mean for him being a Muslim. So now I interact with a new dad who is … every phone call, “Salaam Alaikum,” and “peace be unto you,” and, “When are you taking your Shahada?” and on and on and on. It’s great for me to see him finding something greater than himself, outside of himself to aspire to that is tied directly to his politics of liberation. And it’s new; my dad has gone through all these different iterations, to coming to a spiritual place and having some conversations with Ashley and the Bruderhof. He’s revealing his need at this point in his life to have conversations; he feels it’s important now to come to people and say, “Hey, I’m a different guy.”

    II: Ashley Lucas: Telling Russell Shoatz’s Story

    Peter Mommsen: Now we’ll welcome the author of the piece “The End of Rage” in our new issue, “Beyond Borders,” Ashley Lucas. Ashley is Professor of Theater and Drama and is the former Director of the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan. She is a fellow of the Ford Foundation, the UNC Faculty Engaged Scholars Program, and UNC’s Institute for Arts and Humanities. Ashley, welcome. What can you tell us about this amazing story that you’ve written and how it came to be from your perspective?

    Ashley Lucas: Thank you. The article that you all were so kind to commission me and invite me to write about the Shoatz family has really been an incredible learning experience for me. I knew some things about the Black Panthers, I had heard of the Black Liberation Army, and I knew something of the radical politics of underground groups in the 1960s and 1970s, but I had not heard of Russell Maroon Shoatz. And I think that one of the things that I’m most grateful for about the opportunity to write this was to get to know a bit of him and his family, and to try to help other people know who he has been as an extraordinary figure in US history.

    Russell Shoatz was a young man growing up in Philadelphia, African American in an African American neighborhood where he regularly saw the police doing incredible harm, physically and psychologically, to people in his community, and he grew up a very angry person. He ended up deciding to join some radical political groups and actually to form them. The Black Liberation Army is a very strange underground group and formed in several different cells independently from each other without those cells even really knowing about one another in different parts of the country. The famous ones were in New York with Assata Shakur and Sekou Odinga and some other people. But simultaneously, and perhaps even a little bit earlier than that group’s formation, Russell Shoatz help to form a Black Liberation Army in Philadelphia.

    photo of Russell Maroon Shoatz in prison clothes against a cinderblock wall

    Russell Maroon Shoatz

    And these were folks who felt very pressured, their entire lives were on the line. It was not such a crazy idea as it seems today for folks to go underground, for folks to take up arms against the authorities, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Young people all over the country from all different racial and ethnic backgrounds, from all different class backgrounds, were doing very similar things. They were making their own bombs and blowing things up in protest of authority. They were protesting the Vietnam War and a whole lot of folks were really upset about police violence, which of course holds immense resonance with what we’re experiencing today in the wake of George Floyd’s death and so many others and in the Black Lives Matter era that we live in now.

    But Russell Shoatz was doing some extraordinary things. He was trying to figure out how his community could cease living in what he felt was a police state, and he did some terrible stuff along the way. He was involved in the shooting of two police officers at the Fairmount Park police substation in Philadelphia on August 29th, 1970, and he was underground and managed to escape capture for a couple of years before he was finally arrested in 1972. At that time he was given a life without parole sentence and went to prison, and then became a famous and interesting figure in prison because, to the best of my knowledge, he is the person who has successfully escaped from Pennsylvania prisons more than anybody else.

    And he is immensely creative and resourceful and intelligent My husband, who also writes for Plough, Phil Christman, has talked about Maroon as I’ve done this research, as a Homeric hero that he often does things you … he did things in the past that you really didn’t like and didn’t want him to do but at the same time you feel that you’re rooting for him, because while he’s doing things that are violent and unpleasant, he’s also really rallying and organizing people who are genuinely oppressed about issues that really matter and ways of suffering that people shouldn’t have to endure as a community or as individuals.

    Today, Russell Shoatz remains in prison because of his escapes and things that were involved in them. He is currently serving two life without parole sentences and twenty-five years on top of that. I don’t know how you live twice and then another twenty-five years, but that’s the way our judicial system works. He’s seventy-eight years old. He has stage IV colorectal cancer that his doctors say is both terminal and aggressive, and he has recently been denied medical release by a Pennsylvania court. It’s very difficult to justify the ruling of the denial of his medical release because he is now in a wheelchair. All of his intestines have been removed, he has a colostomy bag, and he has survived Covid in that state in prison. And still, the judge said at his medical release hearing that he was a danger to society. I find it very, very difficult to believe that a man who is seventy-eight years old in a wheelchair with no intestines is a public threat, that we need to really keep him in prison for our own safety. That’s an excuse for something else.

    In writing the story, I really hope that the world can see how complicated every human being is. Russell Maroon Shoatz is not all good or all bad. He has done a lot of things in his life and he has suffered immensely, and he also has a family that loves him very much. He’s had two different wives, one legal and one common-law, and seven children between them. And all of those folks love him very, very much. His children are all in their 50s and none of them have really known him in freedom. And I wish very much for their family to have the chance to know one another in freedom, to wear street clothes together and sit around a table and share a meal and do all the things that we wish any family would be able to do. Sorry, that was a long preamble because the story is a long and complex story, but that’s an essential outline of what I learned in the process of writing this.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I think that the term Homeric for Russell’s story is absolutely right. This is a man of many twists and turns, to use Emily Wilson’s translation of introducing Odysseus in the Odyssey. And one of the great strengths of this piece and why I feel it’s so important is that you don’t shy away from looking squarely at that complexity without trying to weigh up moral balance sheets in a way that cancel each other out and oversimplify things.

    For instance, we know, and Russell has admitted that he was involved in the murder on August 29th, 1970, of a Philadelphia police officer, Sergeant Frank Von Colln, who himself had a family. And part of the story that you tell is also a story of Russell himself, especially in most recent years, thinking over the legacy of political violence and what was it that he was responsible for. And in fact, there’s an amazing statement from him at the end of your piece. Without spoiling anything for the reader, which we don’t want to do on this podcast because we want you to read the whole piece, could you tell a little, for our listeners: how do we sympathize and root for somebody who’s a convicted cop killer?

    Ashley Lucas: How do we sympathize and root for anybody? I mean, one of the things that people really fail to understand about incarcerated people is that they are not the sum total of the worst thing they ever did, or the worst series of things that they ever did. All of us have done things that we are not proud of. All of us would like to be judged in the fullness of who we are, the complexity that each human being brings to life. And Russell Shoatz is a really, really complex guy. I mean, he has done incredible things to mentor and organize other people who are suffering.

    One story that doesn’t get told as fully in the piece as I would have liked, just because it was already a really long article, was about a time in Russell’s life when he was coming out of a stint in solitary confinement and a lot of the other men around him had been in long-term solitary confinement as well. And they were protesting human rights violations that were happening in that prison, and civil rights violations, lack of access to their families and time to exercise and to shower and guards putting spit and bugs and things in their food deliberately so that they would be tortured.

    And these men were really, really smart about it. They went on a hunger strike, but they didn’t want to strike long enough for anybody to die. So they devised a system, actually, Russell got transferred out of that prison for a while to go to a court hearing for something else and when he came back the other men around him had come up with this system of trading off being on hunger strike. Somebody would go on hunger strike for about a month, and other people who were part of the strike would basically rest a little while and eat and rejuvenate their bodies so that they could go on a hunger strike again. And the people who were actually eating would be writing letters, contacting local radio stations, contacting their families, organizing people in the free world to say, “There are all of these terrible things happening in the prison that nobody can know about because we live in solitary confinement. We need your help in the free world. This is how long all of these people have been on hunger strike.”

    And they kept it up for a very long time, and then families got involved. The radio was broadcasting things about what was happening in the prison, and all of these family members who showed up in the parking lot of the prison to start protesting started getting taken off the visiting list to see their loved ones. And Maroon and his colleagues were horrified about this, and the families kept coming. They wore ski masks so that they couldn’t be profiled by the people in the prison. And all of that actually resulted in the end of a certain segment of perpetual solitary confinement that these folks were enduring. And to organize people who live in isolation, anybody who’s a union organizer knows that some populations are easier to organize than others. To organize people in prison is incredibly, incredibly difficult, because they live in this totalizing place where everything is controlled and literally your life is in the hands of your jailers all the time.

    One of the reasons why Maroon is easy to become attached to emotionally as you read more about his story is that he always thinks beyond the obvious. He always thinks about a greater community. Even though he did some things that were incredibly violent and selfish and unkind and hurt communities, there’s this other side of him that is also equally forceful and potent that is always advocating for large groups of other people who have suffered in ways that he has suffered. He’s constantly a big bowl of contradictions. He never is easy to explain, easy to write off, easy to ignore. He makes himself a forceful, often charming, often frightening presence in the lives of a lot of people. There’s nothing simple about who he is.

    And we often center these conversations about who should be in prison and who should not on a notion that there are good and bad people. And I fundamentally believe that nobody is a good or a bad person, we wake up every day and make good and bad choices. We make choices towards kindness or towards harm or towards rage or towards love, and every day we’re a set of new choices, and the sum total of who you are is all of those things put together. You can’t pretend that Russell Shoatz didn’t hurt people in really, really horrific ways, but you also can’t pretend that he didn’t help people in ways that matter, in ways that will leave legacies long after his death.

    III: Ashley Lucas: On Solitary Confinement

    Peter Mommsen: Well, as I mentioned in introducing this conversation – the early part of this podcast, Ashley, I mean – I had the privilege of meeting Russell, it was twenty years ago now. And what you describe about the sheer aliveness of his personality is the thing that probably stands out to me. I also corresponded with him for several years at the time, and the creativity of mind and the willingness to self-criticize and self-correct and rethink things is something that … he struck me as one of the most intense and most alive people I had ever met. Now that was, at that point, I believe around six years into a twenty-two-year stint in solitary confinement which he underwent. Could you talk with us about what does it mean to be locked up in solitary confinement for twenty-two years?

    A solitary confinement cell (Rikers Island, New York). The size of the cells in which Shoatz was held continuously from 1991 to 2014 was ca. 64 to 80 square feet.

    A solitary confinement cell (Rikers Island, New York). The size of the cells in which Shoatz was held continuously from 1991 to 2014 was ca. 64 to 80 square feet. Photograph by Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press. Used by permission.

    Ashley Lucas: It is the ultimate social death. When we put someone in solitary confinement, we have said, “You are exiled, not just from the free world but from the world inside this prison. We don’t believe that you deserve human contact. We don’t believe that you deserve a loving touch. We don’t believe that you deserve to have a conversation that doesn’t have to be screamed through a wall. We don’t even believe that you should get to shower every day.” That’s what we’re saying when we put people in solitary confinement. The UN says that fifteen days in solitary confinement is torture. Russell Shoatz did nearly thirty, twenty-two of them without a break.

    And part of what I never get past in the narrative of his life is that despite the fact that, yeah, he did some really violent stuff; he killed a person, or he was involved in the killing of a person at least, and he harmed a lot of other people in myriad ways. [And] he was very creative in the good things that he had done as well. But when it came time to [identify] what the state felt most threatened by, what they punished him most harshly for, it was because he had followed all of the correct procedures in the prison for forming an inmate organization and been elected president of a club that was meant for lifers, the men serving life in that prison. And the night he gets elected, they throw him in solitary confinement and he doesn’t leave for twenty-two years.

    I mean, [this was] direct retaliation for the fact that he was politically organizing people who were living the same life that he was. And this was one of the times when he was actually organizing in a way that showed no indication of violence. He was just getting men to think about “how do we as a community of people who have been told that we will die here, who are supposed to live our whole lives –” and in Pennsylvania there are a hell of a lot of people who are never supposed to leave prison because of the way their sentencing laws work – he looked at all those men and said, “Let’s make the kind of life that we could best have here. Let’s take care of each other. Let’s build the kind of world that we have access to, that we actually want to live in. Let’s make our lives as good and productive and thoughtful and caring towards one another in this space as we possibly can.” And that’s what caused them to put him in isolation for twenty-two years.

    You don’t even have control over what you read. You don’t have control over who you talk to. You don’t have control over what you’re going to wear or eat every day. And solitary confinement sounds like it is not the same thing as waterboarding somebody or doing some other kind of physical torture to a person. I once read this piece in the New York Times, one of those things where they have an author talk about what books you’re reading and how you feel about being an author. And they interviewed Amy Tan, who may be a perfectly delightful person in a lot of other ways, but I’ve never gotten over what she said in this little, tiny New York Times piece: that she wouldn’t mind being in solitary confinement because she would just read and write. And I thought, “Well, good luck, lady, getting access to the books you want to read. Good luck at not having your writing taken away, confiscated, and destroyed. Good luck at dealing with the immense noise.”

    People think solitary is quiet, but that is absolutely not the truth. You’re surrounded by people who are freaking out, people whose mental illness has been incredibly exacerbated or even created by those conditions. There are people screaming. There are people throwing feces through the little tiny window in the door because it’s the only form of protest that they have. It is an incredibly unpleasant, constantly harassing environment to be in.

    And [that’s] one of the reasons also why it’s hard not to, in some ways, fall in love with his sheer will to live. You said right now that he was more alive than anybody you’d ever known. You have to be, to live for twenty-two years in solitary confinement in those conditions and come out not completely deranged or dead. A lot of people commit suicide in solitary, and Maroon has survived. He has survived it all. He is surviving right now after having been told yet again that he is meant to die in prison.

    Peter Mommsen: And his story, Ashley, you’ve been involved in issues surrounding prisons and those incarcerated in them for a long time. I mean, the fact that he was seemingly so arbitrarily subjected to these twenty-two years of consecutive torture, almost thirty years total of solitary, can seem just like “surely that doesn’t happen very often.” But I think one thing that’s important about this article is that those patterns, although Russell is a unique and in some ways uniquely fascinating person, his experiences are not some statistical fluke. Could you talk a little bit about that? Because I think so often issues of incarceration are talked about in terms of mass statistics, and I think one big reason that you wrote this piece and also that we wanted to publish it is because it’s so important that it stops being a question of faceless statistics and that we see what it’s like for a man, but also for his family.

    Ashley Lucas: Absolutely. The widespread use of solitary confinement for decades in the United States is absolutely appalling. We break all the records. We defy all logic that comes before us in human history about what prisons are meant to do and how they’re meant to serve the greater good. What we’re doing does not serve the good, in any sense. And we’re locking up all kinds of people. Remarkably, Russell Shoatz doesn’t even come close to being the person who served the most time in solitary confinement in this country. Louisiana has a terrible, terrible record for that. There were three men called the Angola Three who were also Black Panthers, and Albert Woodfox, who is now in freedom, thank God, wrote an extraordinary book that was nominated for the National Book Award called Solitary.

    And people like him and Maroon are both a testament to the incredible cruelty, depravity, inhumanity of the system that we have built across hundreds of years and said that we’ve done so in our name. We put these people in solitary confinement in the name of the good citizens of the United States and say that we have agreed to this tacitly by making this our system of government, our system of judicial punishment. And I don’t want anybody to do that in my name, and I don’t want to keep killing people in my name either. Pennsylvania also has the death penalty and Maroon watched a lot of people that he knew end up dead because of that very system.

    Part of what writing this article means to me was a chance to put a face on these kinds of experiences and tortures to say this is just one among many people who have suffered. Nobody has a life quite like Russell Shoatz’s life in its totality, but all the different pieces of his life, all of the different ways in which the government intervened to physically harm, devastate, harass, and torture him and his family, that’s all happened to other people in other ways, and it’s happened over and over and over again. There is nothing in his story that is entirely unique, that I read about it and thought, “Oh, this is a complete outlier. This is not happening to other people. This is not happening to other Black folks in the United States, other people in prison.” That’s just not true. Everything that’s happened to him has been perpetrated many, many, many times against other people and families.

    Peter Mommsen: We tend to look for violence on the part of convicted criminals in prison, and we parse their violence very carefully. That’s not the only kind of violence there is. And while I don’t agree with the decisions of the Black Liberation Army and you’re not arguing for their tactics in this piece either, it is just helpful to know that at the same time that they were taking up arms against the United States government, which they saw as a racist apartheid government, Nelson Mandela and his comrades in the ANC were doing the same in South Africa with the same justification and were likewise branded as terrorists and imprisoned.

    And our conventional view of Nelson Mandela and the ANC is one thing and our view of Russell Maroon Shoatz [and] his comrades is another. That really doesn’t have a great deal to do with consistency of principles in regard to violence and maybe just says more about us than it does about where violence truly is in our society. And that comes through in your piece, Ashley, in a way that I think ought to challenge and provoke and disturb and unsettle all of us. None of us like those things happening to us. And they have to because there’s five state prisons within twenty minutes of me where we’re recording this podcast, this is not somewhere else.

    IV: Ashley Lucas: On the Families Left Behind

    Peter Mommsen: The other thing that your piece brings out and I know when we were working on editing it, one of the toughest things was cutting out some of the testimonies of Russell’s family. But when somebody is locked away for life, much less put in solitary for that amount of time, they are not the only ones who suffer. And this is a father of seven who’s absent in the lives of seven kids. Could you talk a little bit about that aspect of this story?

    Ashley Lucas: Sure. Yeah, it was really gut-wrenching to have to take out some of the stories that were told to me by Russell’s children. I didn’t get to speak to all of them in the research process, but Russell III, his namesake, and Theresa, who is his oldest child and the only one who has a memory of her father in freedom were very generous in speaking to me about their family’s experiences. And Theresa’s stories in particular, really upset the apple cart of how we tell stories about men in prison in particular. Often the narrative about men in prison is highly masculinist and independent, that I’m doing this for myself and my people, and in the 1960s and ’70s were also very full of that highly masculine power rhetoric about how we protest what’s happening in the world.

    And in the meantime, Theresa had to go to school at an elementary school that was right across the street from her mother’s house. And the entire school watched the FBI break down the door and rifle through the family’s house while Theresa’s mother stands at the front door screaming and asking them not to do this. All these men with guns run into the house while all of the children in the elementary school are being held in the schoolyard watching what’s happening across the street because Russell had escaped and they thought he might be coming for his children, which in fact, he never did. He was running off somewhere else where he thought he wouldn’t be found. He never even vaguely attempted to go back for the children.

    But the FBI assumed that he would. And so Frank Rizzo’s police officers in Philadelphia – Rizzo was the chief of police at the time – surround the elementary school and the Shoatz home. The FBI almost end up shooting the family cat because they heard something in a closet that they thought was Russell and it was really just the cat. And after that happens Theresa Russell and her sister, Sharon, were kids still trying to go to school across the street from where all of this happened and everybody knew that their father was in prison. All the other schoolchildren knew it, the teachers knew it, the parents of all the other classmates knew it, and people started treating them really, really differently. For Russell III, maybe because he was younger and maybe because he was a boy, his friends thought it was cool and said, “Hey, can your father escape again so that we can have another day off from school? That was exciting.”

    Members of the Shoatz family visit their father in prison, ca. 2014. From left: Theresa Shoatz, Russell Maroon Shoatz, Sharon Shoatz, and Russell Shoatz III.

    Members of the Shoatz family visit their father in prison, ca. 2014. From left: Theresa Shoatz, Russell Maroon Shoatz, Sharon Shoatz, and Russell Shoatz III. Photograph courtesy of the Shoatz family

    But people treated Theresa like a social pariah in a lot of ways. She developed chronic eczema as a physicalized response to the trauma of constantly being evaluated. Russell’s mother, the children’s grandmother, intervened and got her moved to a different school. But then it all happens again. He escapes again and everybody knows about it again and folks who are in the papers and another little girl at school is pushed to have a big fistfight with Theresa about the fact that her father is in prison. There’s just this sense of ongoing layers of trauma.

    And when I finally talked to Theresa on the phone about all of this, she’s in her fifties and I hardly asked her any questions. I just said who I was and what I was doing about this and I talked about the fact that my own father had spent twenty years in prison in Texas. And she was very open and very generous and she spoke to me for several hours in a stream of storytelling without me really asking questions. And then at the end of it she said, “I don’t think I’m ever going to tell this story again. I don’t want to talk to another reporter about what happened to my family. I’m in my fifties and at this point I don’t know any other life. People are always coming to me saying, ‘Let’s protest about political prisoners. Let’s protest about what’s happening to folks inside the walls. Let’s do this activism stuff.’”

    And she wants another life. She wants her father home very desperately, but she doesn’t want her whole life to have to be the representative of the Black Panthers, the children of the Panthers, the children of people in solitary confinement, the children of people in prison. It’s a lot to put on somebody that she never chose and she was never guilty of any crime no matter how you feel about her father, but this has been her whole life.

    And she made a lot out of it. She took in over twenty-eight foster children, a lot of whom had parents in prison like she did, because she wanted to give a better grounding to other children. She did after-school programming for the children of incarcerated parents. She’s done all kinds of remarkable work to reach out into the world, and so have her siblings. And they are entirely marked by what has happened to their father and they’ve never had the benefit of getting to hug him in freedom outside of all of that, except when Theresa and Sharon were very tiny. They knew a little of that but nobody remembers it anymore but Theresa because she’s the oldest.

    There are many differing accounts. I spoke with Maroon’s wife, Thelma, who is still married to him but doesn’t really talk to him and has a lot of very righteous resentment of things that he did – not politically, but to their family specifically. And the various members of the family, as I know from my own family, when you experience incarceration as a family unit it really touches each life very differently. Every person is irreparably harmed by what happens when you send somebody to prison. It’s even hard to have the adequate language to explain what that means because we often talk about the crime, the trial, and the moment of somebody going to prison as these incredibly momentous defining things in a family’s life.

    And in many ways they are, but the truth in my own life – and I would make the assumption for the Shoatz family but I won’t speak it for them – in my own family, even though we spent six years in court before my father was finally convicted, everything that happened prior to the moment that he goes to prison was a very, very small thing compared to the twenty years that followed. And even after he came home and lived for five years in freedom before his death, that twenty years in prison shaped us a lot more than any of the stuff that led to his incarceration, because imprisonment itself was the greatest violence.

    And that enduring, consistent, every day waking up knowing that my father was in a place that was unsafe, that I could not really picture what his daily life looked like, that he could not eat healthy food or get adequate exercise, or have adequate access to the news and information that I would want him to have. That he didn’t have access to my life, that he missed the birth of his grandchildren. He missed my wedding, he missed all of my school graduations. That constant sense that the person you love is not only not a part of everything that’s happening out here and you can’t draw on them for support, or strength, or comfort, or all of the immediate things that you want your family for, but you also have this enduring constant sense that the person you love is trapped in a place where they are not safe. And you don’t even know exactly what that means, what they might not be safe from today, but they are not well, they are not healthy. They are not in a place where you feel they’re okay.

    And children of people who are deployed in the military to war zones tell the same stories. It is the sense that you don’t really know what’s happening but you know it’s really scary. That trauma is a lot harder to describe and articulate than the dramatic stuff about “here’s what happened in the courtroom, here’s a crime story, here’s the story of the moment that incarceration happens, what it looks like to see somebody dragged off in handcuffs.” All of that is really tiny compared to the enduring decades of trauma that follow.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, thank you, Ashley. This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you for joining us and thank you for writing this piece.

    Susannah Black: Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or elsewhere, and please rate us as well, five stars on iTunes, which will spread the word to more people. We’ll be back next week to talk more about Christian nationalism with a very special guest, Russell Moore.

    Contributed By AshleyLucas Ashley Lucas

    Ashley Lucas is a theatre professor and director of Latina/o Studies at the University of Michigan and former director of the university’s Prison Creative Arts Project.

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    Contributed By RussellShoatzIII Russell Shoatz III

    Russell Shoatz III is an activist, educator, and live event producer.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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