Supreme Court rejects prisoner’s appeal on prolonged solitary confinement

The conservative majority of the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from an Illinois inmate in solitary confinement who argued that denying him exercise was a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

The brief did not contain a reason why the six conservative justices declined the prisoner’s appeal.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, harshly disagreed with the court’s denial, calling the lower court’s ruling in Johnson v Prentice an “indisputable legal error”.

The case pertains to Michael Johnson, an inmate at the Pontiac Correctional Center who was held in solitary confinement for nearly three and a half years during which prison officials refused to allow him recreation time in the prison yard.

“Johnson spent nearly every hour of his existence in a windowless, perpetually lit cell about the size of a parking space. His cell was poorly ventilated, resulting in unbearable heat and noxious odors. The space was also unsanitary, often caked with human waste,” the background of the claims.

Johnson filed a complaint, claiming his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment was violated. But the district court claimed revoking yard time was not cruel nor unusual, and the Seventh Circut upheld the ruling on Johnson’s appeal.

Johnson then appealed to the Supreme Court, and while six justices did not see it necessary to rule in the case, the three liberal justices disagreed, saying the Seventh Circut focused on “trivial” aspects of Johnson’s case rather than all the evidence concerning his health.

Johnson, who was serving time for a home invasion, was classified as “seriously mentally ill” by the Illinois Department of Corrections due to his bipolar disorder and severe depression diagnoses, among other conditions.

In a typical prison sentence, even in solitary confinement, inmates are allowed recreation time for at least eight hours a week. This can be revoked in something called “yard restrictions,” which is a form of punishment for inmates’ infractions.

However, Johnson received more than 70 conduct violations – most of which were “minor” – that led to yard restrictions imposed between 30 and 90 days.

As a result, Johnson had more than three years’ worth of yard restrictions.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Jackson outlined the ways that severely restricting Johnson’s ability to exercise impacted his mental and physical health.

“He suffered from hallucinations, excoriated his own flesh, urinated and defecated on himself, and smeared feces all over his body and cell,” Justice Jackson wrote, adding that he suffered from muscle spasms and developed respiratory difficulties.

“Johnson became suicidal and sometimes engaged in misconduct with the hope that prison guards would beat him to death…Worse still, Johnson’s dire physical condition led to further yard restrictions, as prison guards faulted him for being disruptive and having an unclean cell,” Justice Jackson added.

Eventually, Johnson was transferred to a mental health treatment centre where his condition improved.