Supreme Court refuses to hear case of Black man locked in solitary confinement for three years

Monday's judgment contradicts a 1979 decision by former Justice Anthony Kennedy, then an Appeals Court judge, who wrote that frequent outdoor exercise is critical to inmates' well-being.

The Supreme Court will not hear the case of a Black man who spent three years in solitary confinement in an Illinois correctional facility with no access to the outside or opportunity to exercise.

According to HuffPost, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in March 2022 dismissed Michael Johnson’s claims that solitary confinement combined with a lack of outdoor time violates the Eighth Amendment. Johnson — who has been diagnosed with several mental health disorders, including severe depression and bipolar disorder — and his lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, which rejected his motion on Monday.

However, justices Ketanji Brown Jackson, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented from the high court’s ruling in Johnson v. Prentice, calling it an “indisputable legal error.”

This Aug. 20, 2008, file photo shows the Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Illinois. On Monday, the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case of Michael Johnson, a Black man who was in solitary confinement for three years at the facility. (Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast/AP, File)

“For three years, Johnson had no opportunity at all to stretch his limbs or breathe fresh air,” Jackson wrote. “Johnson’s mental state deteriorated rapidly. He suffered from hallucinations, excoriated his own flesh, urinated and defecated on himself, and smeared feces all over his body and cell.”

The Illinois Department of Corrections told HuffPost it is assessing the court’s decision.

According to The New York Times, Johnson was incarcerated at Pontiac Correctional Center since 2007 for a conviction linked to a home invasion and assault. 

Prison officials revoked his “yard privileges” — or opportunity to exercise outside — beginning in 2013 due to “countless” incidents of prison infractions.

He was barred from exercising, which is generally permitted for solitary confinement detainees, as prison authorities “stacked” 30- to 90-day limitations on him. Except for a 10-minute weekly shower, the repeated restrictions tallied up to roughly three years, two consecutive.

Johnson was pleading for a transfer to a mental health unit the entire time. In June 2016, he sued prison officials, claiming the lengthy prohibition of exercise violated the Constitution. The transfer was authorized two months later.

According to HuffPost, Johnson’s counsel contended that the deprivation was imposed not to preserve the safety and security of the exercise yard but rather to punish him for misbehaving due to mental illness and not related to exercise.

Johnson grew suicidal and occasionally participated in wrongdoing in the hope that prison guards would beat him to death, Jackson wrote in the dissent, claiming that his treatment was proof of “unconstitutional deliberate indifference.”

Daniel Greenfield, an attorney for Johnson, said they are “grateful” for the dissent but “saddened to live in an era where imposing such cruelty, let alone on a person known to suffer from mental illness, is acceptable to any federal judge.”

According to The Times, Monday’s judgment contradicts a 1979 decision by former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. An Appeals Court judge at the time, Kennedy opined then that frequent outdoor exercise is critical to inmates’ psychological and physical well-being.

Several human rights organizations have denounced the use of solitary confinement, comparing it to torture and asserting that it violates the Eighth Amendment, HuffPost reported.

President Joe Biden promised to end the use of solitary confinement, but it has only gotten more common in federal prisons, according to HuffPost, referencing NBC News.

“Three years of 24/7 solitary confinement, unrelieved by any opportunity for exercise, would have appalled the Founders,” Greenfield said. “It should be no less shocking to us today.”

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