How Maroon influenced me

Jerome Coffey has been wrongly incarcerated for 28 years, currently at Pennsylvania’s SCI Pine Grove. He is an exceptional pro se litigant, that is, he represents himself in legal actions. He filed and won a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections and a civil suit. In both these cases, he successfully defended himself. 

Russell “Maroon” Shoatz is an activist, writer, founding member of the Black Unity Council, former member of the Black Panther Party, and soldier in the Black Liberation Army. Incarcerated since 1972 and now 77, Maroon is serving multiple life sentences in Pennsylvania as a U.S.-held political prisoner of war. 

After escaping prison twice, in 1977 and 1980, he earned the name “Maroon” from fellow incarcerated men, a nod to Africans who fled chattel slavery and created autonomous communities throughout the Americas. Shoatz was born 78 years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In his first 11 years Maroon experienced Jim Crow segregation laws enabled by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1877 ruled that states couldn’t prohibit segregation on common modes of transportation.  In 1883, SCOTUS overturned parts of the 1875 Civil Rights Act that prohibited “separate but equal” facilities.  Jim Crow was enforced by local, state, and federal governments – also law enforcement agencies. 

I first met Maroon 20 years ago in solitary confinement under inhumane circumstances implemented by the oppressors of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Maroon was a source of hope and inspiration, not only for me but thousands of other young incarcerated men experiencing similar conditions.

Maroon is a walking encyclopedia and historian who taught us young men humanity and how to fight back against the evil of oppressors in solitary confinement by educating ourselves and using the legal system. Today when I look at the Black Lives Matter movement organizing to stop police brutality of killing innocent humans, I realize a half century ago Maroon confronted police brutality for the humanity of Black lives. He was motivated by a lot of the same issues – in his case it was the murder and harassment of Black people at the hands of Frank Rizzo and the Philadelphia Police Department..

Today, Maroon has stage 4 cancer and deserved to be released to his family from the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Pennsylvania has a statute, codified as 42 Pa. C.S. 9777, which allows an incarcerated person’s sentencing judge to grant compassionate release for an elderly and terminally ill person. Eleven years ago, local attorney and ex-Boxing Commissioner George Bochetto attempted to get John DuPont out of prison under this statute, but he was not successful, and DuPont died in SCI Laurel Highlands about a year later. 

Pennsylvania state lawmakers frequently talk about drafting legislation pertaining to criminal justice reform. Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel constantly talks about the elder population in the prison system. Maroon is an elder and in his condition he should be home with his family. Maroon influenced me to stand up and be a man and fight the injustices against all people. Thank you, Maroon.


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