Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote a six-page dissent on the court’s denial of certiorari in the case Johnson v. Apprentice, in which she described in detail some of the horrible conditions to which the prisoner was subjected for three continuous years. She was joined by fellow liberal judges Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Michael Johnson, an inmate at the Pontiac Correctional Center near Chicago, is classified as “seriously mentally ill” due to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, major depression and other conditions; he was placed in solitary confinement with no windows, a “constantly lit cell the size of a parking space” for more than three years.
Jackson noted that Johnson’s cell was not only shockingly small, but unsanitary, “often covered with human waste,” poorly ventilated, and unbearably hot. Prison officials refused to give Johnson cleaning supplies, and “he was often forced to clean the dirt with his bare hands,” she said. Furthermore, Johnson was only allowed out of his cell to shower once a week, and only for ten minutes.
“For three years, Johnson had no chance to stretch his limbs or breathe fresh air,” the judge wrote.
Jackson also described some of the particularly dire consequences Johnson suffered as a result of these conditions. His “mental state suddenly worsened”, he hallucinated, developed problems with his muscles and respiratory system, “he was tearing his own body, urinating and defecating on himself, and smearing excrement on his body and cell.” Johnson also became suicidal and even tried to lure prison guards into beating him to death.
In addition to the disastrous conditions, Johnson was also deprived of exercise for most of his time in the facility. Jackson called the deprivation “extraordinarily difficult.”
Johnson sued prison officials for violating his Eighth Amendment rights, and the district court refused to assist counsel. The core of the claim was that the guards were deliberately indifferent to Johnson’s treatment. Ultimately, prison officials prevailed in the summary judgment case after Johnson filed only a partially handwritten objection that ended with the statement, “I couldn’t finish.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit also ruled against Johnson.
In her dissent, Jackson said the Seventh Circuit misapplied the legal analysis required for intentional indifference claims and failed to even consider the cumulative effect that depriving a man of exercise for three years had on his physical and mental health. The appeals court should have focused on the inconsistency between the various parties’ factual accounts and reversed summarily, Jackson said.
Unlike the statement on denials of certiorari in other cases, Jackson refrained from lashing out at her fellow judges in her six-page statement. Instead, she narrowed her focus to recounting the troubling facts of Johnson’s incarceration and what she called an “undisputed legal error” made by the courts below in considering Johnson’s lawsuit. Jackson said she would not only grant certiorari in the case, but, given the Seventh Circuit’s error, would immediately reverse the petition.
Jackson reminded the justices that in 2015 they specifically recognized solitary confinement as a practice that “charges a terrible price,” and that “serious objections” to the use of solitary confinement as a form of imprisonment have been brought before the Court “for more than a century.”
You can read the verdict in its entirety here.