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Out of solitary after 22 years and $99,000 richer, cop-killer Russell Shoatz ponders the rest of life in prison

He's out of solitary confinement for the first time in 22 years, and $99,000 richer from settlement of a civil rights lawsuit against Pennsylvania prison officials.

Russell Shoatz
Russell ShoatzRead more

He's out of solitary confinement for the first time in 22 years, and $99,000 richer from settlement of a civil rights lawsuit against Pennsylvania prison officials.

But at 72 - serving life without parole for the 1970 murder of Philadelphia Police Sgt. Frank Von Colln - Russell Shoatz is never getting out, and now ponders his remaining life behind bars.

"One of the biggest things is that my father is now beginning a period of growth and development," said Shoatz's son, Russell III.

The younger Shoatz said there was talk of using part of the settlement to help inmates reenter society.

There's an idea for a reconciliation forum for former Black Panthers set against each other by law enforcement infiltrators during the turbulent 1960s and '70s.

And, perhaps, also what Shoatz called a "safe space" where the African American community and police can try to defuse current tensions.

Shoatz even is considering a "reconciliation program" where inmates can try to make peace with victims' families, perhaps even "reaching out to the Von Colln family."

"Of course, there is no way to guarantee that will happen," Shoatz added.

It won't, said Kurt Von Colln, 65, one of three surviving children of the sergeant.

"No way," said Von Colln, himself a retired Philadelphia police officer. "This guy doesn't deserve it."

Von Colln said the elder Shoatz has "taken a lot away from the Von Colln family."

Von Colln called the state's $99,000 settlement with Shoatz "completely ridiculous. This guy is in there for killing a police officer and he's not been a model prisoner."

In 2013, lawyers for the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center sued the state in federal court there contending Shoatz's solitary confinement of 22 years violated the Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."

In February, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy ordered the case be tried, which Shoatz's lawyers said would have been the first trial nationwide to challenge long-term solitary confinement. In May, the state agreed to settle, but details of that agreement were not announced until July 12.

Frank Von Colln was 43 on the hot and humid night of Aug. 29, 1970, when gunmen entered the Cobbs Creek Park Police Station at 63rd and Catharine Streets and shot him at his desk. Another officer was shot in the face but survived.

It started what was the bloodiest weekend in the history of the Philadelphia Police Department: Von Colln dead, six other officers shot and wounded.

Shoatz and five other self-described black revolutionaries were convicted of Von Colln's murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. A sixth man, arrested in 1996 after 26 years as a fugitive, was acquitted at trial in 1998.

Shoatz's solitary confinement was not without reason. He escaped from prison in 1977 and again in 1980. After the first escape, he was convicted of kidnapping and robbing the wife and young son of a correctional officer. He held them for several hours.

Afterward, he was an inmate activist, and in 1983 was interim president of the inmate organization Pennsylvania Association of Lifers.

In 1992, when Shoatz was in the Greene state prison in Western Pennsylvania, he was put in solitary confinement: 23 hours a day in an always-lit cell, with an hour for exercise. There he stayed until it seemed as if he'd never get out.

In addition to the $99,000 settlement, the state said it would stop punishing Shoatz with isolation for past infractions and give him a one-man cell in the general population.

The Abolitionist Law Center argued that after 22 years in solitary, Shoatz should "not have to experience the extreme hardship of being forced to share a cell."

Shoatz's son said his father, who now is in Graterford Prison in Montgomery County, initially could not bear being hugged or touched, and needed help living in a general prison population.

Shoatz had lost his ability to climb stairs after 22 years in one cell and had to relearn that and other skills, his son said.

As for his father's plans, Shoatz said, "he hasn't figured all that out yet. He doesn't know anything about trusts and tax exemptions."

Dustin McDaniel, an Abolitionist Law Center lawyer, said the center had received the $99,000 from the state and deposited it into an escrow account.

"He'll be able to spend it however he wants," McDaniel said.

As for other inmates in solitary confinement - notably Arthur Johnson, 63, serving life for a 1970 gang-related murder in Philadelphia and in solitary almost 37 years - McDaniel said the Shoatz settlement had not had an impact.

"The state does appear to continue fighting against the Johnson case for whatever reason," McDaniel said.