Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson said the lower court was wrong. “For three years Johnson had no opportunity at all to stretch his limbs or breathe fresh air,” Jackson wrotewho, along with Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, said the high court should have allowed Johnson’s lawsuit against prison officials to proceed.
As is customary, the majority of the court gave no reason for denying Johnson’s request.
As Jackson noted, individual judges have been concerned about solitary confinement for years. “Indeed, serious objections to this form of incarceration have been made to this court for over a century,” she wrote.
But what made Johnson’s case more unusual — and more limited — was his objection to not being allowed into the cage’s outer area, where inmates are allowed more room to move than what is allowed in a cell Jackson described as the size of a parking space.
Johnson, convicted for his role in the home invasion, has a severe mental illness and has been placed in solitary confinement at the Pontiac Correctional Center as a result of multiple disciplinary violations. He accumulated a series of “yard restrictions,” which meant no outdoor excursions. Individual sentences ranged from 30 to 90 days, “but the restrictions were stacked so that, in total, Johnson received more than three years” of sentences, Jackson wrote.
Johnson’s condition worsened. “He suffered from hallucinations, plowed his own body, urinated and defecated on himself, and smeared feces on his body and cell,” the judge wrote. “Johnson became suicidal and sometimes misbehaved with the hope that prison guards would beat him to death. … Worse, Johnson’s dire physical condition led to further yard restrictions, as prison guards accused him of being disruptive and having an unclean cell.”
“This vicious cycle,” Jackson wrote, continued until Johnson was transferred to a specialized mental health treatment unit, where his condition improved.
The Supreme Court has recognized that exercise is among the basic provisions of prison, along with warmth and food. But a 7th Circuit panel said that a prison’s ability to deny exercise opportunities for a period of time for serious offenses does not violate the Constitution, nor does “stacking” such sentences.
Johnson’s attempt to have the full circuit review that decision failed because of a tie vote.
Jackson said the district court erred by focusing on whether prison officials were justified in issuing individual restraints, rather than the effect they had on Johnson. The proper standard should be whether the conditions of confinement can be attributed to a prison official’s “deliberate indifference” to the inmate’s health or safety, she wrote.
The lower court “did not consider the impact of cumulative exercise deprivation on Johnson’s physical and mental health, nor what was known to prison officials about the risks of such deprivation,” Jackson wrote. “And there was more than sufficient evidence to support the jury’s reasonable conclusion that the total three-year deprivation of yard time to which Johnson was subjected was the result of unconstitutional deliberate indifference.”
It’s the case Johnson v. Intern.