On Russell Maroon Shoatz’s “Death By Regulation,” 1997, with Robert Saleem Holbrook, Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center

This post is part of the Metropole’s Disciplining the Nation series, where we are spotlighting a primary source that is vital to the retelling of the history of racial state violence and criminalization in the United States. Learn more about the series here.

By Charlotte Rosen

“I am not under a court sentence of death. I have, however, been sentenced to ‘death by regulation.”

These words were written by Russell Maroon Shoatz in 1997, while in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution Greene. A founding member of Philadelphia’s Black Unity Council, member of the Black Panther Party, and member of the Black Liberation Army, Russell Maroon Shoatz was a Black political prisoner who spent nearly 50 years in Pennsylvania and federal prisons until he was released this past October. He escaped twice from Pennsylvania state prisons, which serves as the origin of his name Maroon, which also serves to reference the thousands of escaped enslaved people who liberated themselves and built independent maroon communities across the United States colony. Throughout his imprisonment, and despite ongoing repression and torture from the Pennsylvania correctional administration, Shoatz continued to organize against state violence and mentored fellow imprisoned people through his writings on the prison industrial complex, the legacy of Black struggle, history of Black maroonage, and more. Over 30 years of his time in captivity was spent in solitary confinement.

After a long campaign for his release, Shoatz was recently granted compassionate release on October 25th, 2021 and is now able to enter hospice care surrounded by family and close friends. He is 78 years old and is suffering from life-threatening health conditions, most pressingly, Stage 4 cancer.

The life and writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz are not widely known. As Quincy Saul wrote in an introduction to Shoatz’s collected writings, this “is no accident” – the suppression of “maroon ideas, maroon histories, and programs for maroon futures” is to be expected under a racial capitalist regime hellbent on criminalizing political dissent and forms of truthtelling that challenge the carceral status quo. But Shoatz’s analyses of the US prison industrial complex, recollections and reassessments of the post-1960s era of the Black liberation movement, and insights on movement tactics and strategy, deserve the close attention of carceral state historians serious about listening when the “the pen is with the maroons.”

For The Metropole’s “Disciplining the Nation”series, I selected Russell Maroon Shoatz’s piece “Death by Regulation: Pennsylvania Control Unit Abuses,” written in 1995 and found here. Maroon’s concept of “death by regulation” is a particularly clarifying concept for historians and activists alike. Shoatz describes death by regulation as the late-twentieth century practice of segregating imprisoned people deemed unruly or “troublemakers” in punitive control units – a “prison within a prison” or “high-tech isolation and torture holes.” Despite appearing less cruel than the death penalty and being “governed by clearly defined rules,” these control units ultimately brought about mass, racially disproportionate premature death through long-term solitary confinement, psychological and physical abuse, and social control.

The central topic of “Death by Regulation is the late-20th century explosion of supermaximum security prisons that use long-term, punitive solitary confinement to cage individuals classified as “disruptive” or “violent.” The first prison to contain a control unit was a federal one built in Marion, Illinois, where more than one hundred radical Black, Native, Puerto Rican, and white antiracist prisoners were transferred in 1972. Mixing long term solitary confinement with invasive behavior modification experiments, indiscriminate punishment, and routine deprivation of communication with the outside world, prisoners in Marion suffered excruciating tortures. As Eddie G. Griffin, who was imprisoned in Marion’s control unit, wrote “It is itself a Death Row for the living. Its creation added the ultimate dimension to the behavior modification systems. The subtle implication behind its meaning is made sharp and clear: Conform or Die.”

Although radical collectives such as the Committee to End Marion Lockdown (CEML) fought boldly to prevent the spread of control units, prisons built with or entirely consisting of control units proliferated in the 1980s through the 1990s with the express purpose repressing political and politicized prisoners. The In 1980, there were just two federal super-maximum or “supermax” prisons. By 2005, 44 states had supermax facilities. These supermax prisons are constructed to cage prisoners in single cells for 23 hours a day, for an indefinite period of time – a practice that the United Nations Human Rights Council now deems a form of torture. Beyond the expansion of supermax prisons, almost all prisons and jails now have control units used for solitary confinement of prisoners. Studies of specific state prisons also suggest that Black and Latinx prisoners are disproportionately confined and punished through long-term solitary confinement in control units. 

Maroon wrote “Death by Regulation” while he was imprisoned in the control unit at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution Greene, where he was caged for 18 years. In addition to the light being left on in his cell 24 hours a day, he endured frigid temperatures, complete social isolation, nutritional violence (in the form of smaller portions of nutritionally deficient food), medical neglect, racist abuse from guards, little to no access to intellectual, educational, vocational, or therapeutic programming, censorship of mail and reading material, restricted property, non-contact visits, and more. In “Death by Regulation,” Shoatz describes how control units operate using a form of “clean torture” that “break[s] your mind” and “will to resist” in order to “coopt you as a willing pawn in their war to pacify and exploit you for the service of capital.” These units render their caged inhabitants civilly if not biologically dead – thus death by regulation. “Control unit facilities cannot be allowed to exist,” he wrote, because “they serve no purpose other than to dehumanize their occupants.” Prisons and their “supermaxification,” Shoatz suggests, represent sites of genocide rooted in the history of US racial slavery, Indigenous dispossession, and imperialism. “I’m being housed in a ‘death camp,” Shoatz wrote in another piece in 1997, adding, “I mean that literally.”

To better contextualize “Death by Regulation: Pennsylvania Control Unit Abuses” and its impact at the time of its publication, I met with Robert Saleem Holbrook, the Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, to discuss Shoatz’s writings and work. Holbrook speaks about his experience learning from and struggling alongside Shoatz in Pennsylvania prisons, the power of Shoatz’s concept of “death by regulation,” the importance of history for contemporary prison and police abolition movements, and much more.

The following is a transcript of my conversation with Holbrook on Shoatz’s work and organizing, which has been edited for length and clarity.

CR: To begin, do you mind introducing yourself?

Robert Saleem Holbrook

RSH: My name is Robert Saleem Holbrook; I’m the Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center. I’m also a co-founder of the Human Rights Coalition. My pronouns are he/him. I did 27 years in prison for an offense that I was convicted of as a child, and when I was inside prison, I was very fortunate to make the acquaintance of and be mentored by political prisoners in Pennsylvania – that resulted in me becoming the person I am today.

Headshot of Charlotte Rosen: white-presenting femme with shoulder, length curly brown hair, brown eyes, wearing gold hoop earrings and a black shirt.
Charlotte Rosen

CR: Jumping off from that, something I learned about Maroon, not only through reading his work but also through a lot of the events that have been happening around efforts to free him and get him proper care, has been his extensive organizing work inside – which was arguably a form of mutual aid, of political education – and so I was just wondering if you could share a little bit about what your experience learning from him was like.

RSH: Maroon has had one of the most major influences on my political development of any other living person – however, I only really met Maroon two times and there was a 26 year gap between those meetings. So powerful were our personal interactions that they resonated with me. For context, when I was 17 years old at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Camp Hill, I was placed in the hole. When Camp Hill had a riot [in 1989], Maroon and other prisoners who were in the holes across the state – particularly who were political prisoners, politicized prisoners, or prisoners who just gave the state of Pennsylvania problems – had been sent out of the state and into the federal system for a year and a half. When Maroon came back into the state, he was placed back in the hole at SCI Camp Hill, where I was also being caged. At 17 years old, I probably had been in prison for maybe a year by this point. So I met Maroon, but I didn’t actually have any conversation with Maroon. Maroon would come on the gate and talk about Black liberation history, he would talk about the 1960s and 1970s and the struggles that our communities went through, as well as like encouraging younger prisoners who were in the hole like myself to read, to better yourself, to get yourself in shape. He opened our eyes to not just the injustices of the system, but why and how we should fight back. That was 1991.

Throughout my travels in the prison system, Maroon wrote a lot, and his articles would come to us through the prison grapevine as well as in published pieces – that was the only way he could communicate with us because he was locked down in solitary confinement; Maroon did close to 30 years in solitary confinement. So the way Maroon communicated to us was through articles. That was part of our political development, reading Maroon’s articles about prisons, about the struggle, about political development, reading Maroon’s critiques of democratic socialism, critiques of vertical versus horizontal leadership.

Fast forward to 2017, I’m coming up for resentencing so I have to be shipped to SCI Graterford and Maroon is at SCI Graterford. So this is my first time actually seeing Maroon in person, where I could touch him, feel him, and we could sit here and talk.

And that was a really great experience for me because I’m like, here is someone who has been a mentor for 26 years in prison for me, who mentored us in inside-outside organization, and on how to be a part of these liberation struggles and radical movements on the outside, how to have something to contribute. Our challenge was to connect prisons with the larger structural issues, the larger structural critiques of America so that we wouldn’t be fighting in a vacuum, we wouldn’t be in a silo.

After years of reading his letters and his articles about this, to have the opportunity to meet him and then have a really great candid conversation with him about – listen, we were thinking that the only ways many of us were gonna get out was by escaping, by going over the wall, so we did a lot of studying on that. It was a really challenging conversation with him because what he did was, he said “listen: we made a mistake along the way,” and it was like, “what? What do you mean we made mistakes!” And he was like, no listen – that’s one thing about Maroon, is he’s always ready to self-critique and do self-evaluation. He said that a lot of the material we were reading about the liberation movements of the ’60s, the ’70s, even ’80s was not going to translate to the society, to the world, that we were going out to today. He said listen, I want you to understand that you’re not going out in that era. There’s no National Liberation movements out there like that. A lot of the tactics and strategies that we studied in Latin America, Asia, even Northern Ireland, it’s not going to translate to that world. It translated in here for us to survive, but it’s not going to translate out there.

But he said what I do want you to do is take out there your politics, take out there your values that we developed in here, and then you translate that to the environment that’s out there. For me, for a lot of us, that is an example of Maroon’s leadership and how he raised us, and how he trained us – and when I say training, we trained in there. We didn’t look at political development as reading a book, sitting around a visioning circle. We were cadres, we trained. And for him to have that self-critical, self-evaluation moment with us really defines Maroon’s leadership and organizing style because, had he not had the credibility he had, I don’t think he would have been able to pull that off with a lot of us, you feel me? But because he had that credibility and history, when he communicated that to us, we knew like, OK, we have to go back and reevaluate, and we did.

CR: Moving more towards Maroon’s piece on control units, something that I think is really powerful about that piece is the framework that Maroon offers of “death by regulation.” I was wondering if you could talk about your reflections on that framework, what it brings up for you, or your reflections on the piece generally.

RSH:  Just hearing that just brought me back, wow… I literally remember first reading the article when I was in the special management unit at SCI Greene, I believe it was 1997. Maroon was in the units maybe not even 50 yards from me but I never saw him for three years. So he was in a control unit, I was in special management unit. And when I first read that, it was really incredible because our civil death was codified by regulation and statutes. So when I was sentenced to life without parole, basically you were civilly dead, from a statutory standpoint. But then, when we were placed in prison, when I was sent into the special management unit, which was not just a hole within a hole, but a hole within a hole within a hole, reading [the phrase] death by regulation… I was like, that’s what they doing, they basically put us in this unit and said “you’re dead, you don’t exist, and we really don’t care. You’re gonna be in this unit 23 hours a day, one hour out for exercise 5 days a week, 24 hours on the weekend.”

That’s basically just death, just erasing you. So reading that article about control units and how your entire existence boils down to death, the administration having control over you and grinding you down, because that’s what it’s about. Maroon was defining long term solitary confinement and long term isolation as state violence – and see, a lot of people, when they look at solitary confinement, they don’t look at it as state violence. You’ll even hear things like, “it’s torture” – but what is torture? It’s state violence. When the state is doing it, when the state sanctions it, endorses it, that’s state violence. And so that framing [of death by regulation] alone put the onus on something different; this isn’t torture, this is about an unjust state. And those were the leaps that Maroon made for us.

It would be very easy for us to fall into thinking “it’s just these units, it’s just these guards on the unit, it’s this prison.” Maroon was always like, no, you’re looking at it from a smaller level, you need to look at it from this larger level. These units will always exist, these guards will always exist, this oppression will always exist, this torture will always exist, as long as the state that sanctions it exists. And that for us was always like, eureka.

CR: As an historian, I often think about how learning about the history of policing and prisons is inherently radicalizing. The more you know about the history of the carceral state, the more it becomes clear to me at least that abolition is the only way forward. So I am curious what learning about the history of criminalization and imprisonment has been like for you or meant for you, or perhaps what kinds of historical lessons or ideas do you often return to from history?

RSH: One thing I have learned from history and that has always been important for me to articulate is that prisons and policing are not an anomaly within the United States. They’re part of the same structure that must be abolished. And you can’t separate them from capitalism, from racial capitalism.

Throughout my imprisonment, one thing I would do and still do, is I study my opponent. Whether it was boxing, whether it was prison, whatever it was, I always had to study my opponent. So my first couple years in prison I just immersed myself in reading books about the history of prisons in the United States, whether it was Eastern State Penitentiary, Sing Sing, the Auburn experiment, the development of the prison movement in California, Pennsylvania’s prison movement… that was my world, because I was sentenced to die there.

So I wanted to see how my class resisted [the prison]. This approach always really helped me, because one, I looked at myself as part of an oppressed class, that was oppressed by a larger state, a larger system that was unjust and that created this class, and that created the conditions for social crime. So for me, piecing all of that together, and always returning to the fact that if we’re going to talk about abolishing police, if we’re going to talk about abolishing prisons, if we’re going to talk about abolishing racial injustice – at the end of the day we’re going to have to talk about abolishing the social contract that has governed the United States since its founding, and then we’re also going to have to talk about the larger picture of abolishing global capitalism.

Once I was able to connect the fact that prisons and police are not anomalies within the United States – that the United States is the problem – I’ve always been able to connect to that the larger fight ahead of us and not just get weighed down.

To learn more about the Abolitionist Law Center’s work, click here.

Featured image (at top): “Running Down The Walls 5k benefit for prisoners” by joepiette2 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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