Due to the strong disagreement of its three liberal members, the Supreme Court on Monday rejected the appeal from a solitary confinement inmate in Illinois who said prolonged deprivation of outdoor exercise was cruel and unusual punishment.
As is court custom, his brief order denying review did not state reasons.
In dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, wrote that the inmate, Michael Johnson, had been isolated in appalling conditions for nearly three years at the Pontiac Correctional Center.
“During that time, Johnson spent nearly every hour of his existence in a windowless, constantly lit cell about the size of a parking space,” Justice Jackson wrote. “His cell was poorly ventilated, resulting in unbearable heat and noxious odors. The space was also unsanitary, often covered with human waste.”
“And since Pontiac officials did not provide Johnson with cleaning supplies unless he purchased them at the store, he was often forced to clean this dirt with his bare hands,” Judge Jackson continued. “Johnson was only allowed out of his cell to shower once a week, for 10 short minutes.”
But none of that was central to the case, Johnson v. Internnumber 22-693.
“In addition to the typical hardships associated with solitary confinement,” Judge Jackson wrote, “prison officials completely deprived Johnson of exercise during nearly all of his incarceration at Pontiac.”
Mr. Johnson suffered from what the prison system alleged was severe mental illness. He broke countless prison rules, disobeyed the orders of guards, spat on them and damaged property.
As punishment for these violations, prison authorities took away an hour of exercise that solitary confinement inmates generally had five days a week, usually in a small, secured outdoor cage.
“Each yard restriction was imposed for a period of between 30 and 90 days, but the restrictions were stacked so that, in total, Johnson received more than three years of yard restriction,” Judge Jackson wrote. “The cramped quarters of Johnson’s cell prevented him from exercising there. So Johnson didn’t have a chance to stretch his limbs or breathe fresh air for three years.”
“The consequences of such a prolonged period of deprivation of exercise were predictably severe,” Justice Jackson continued. “Most significantly, Johnson’s mental state deteriorated rapidly. He suffered from hallucinations, plowed his own body, urinated and defecated on himself, smeared excrement on his body and cell. Johnson became suicidal and sometimes misbehaved with the hope that prison guards would beat him to death.”
Mr Johnson, who was serving time for home invasion and assault, was eventually transferred to a specialist mental health unit, where his condition improved.
A majority of federal appeals courts have said that prisoners have a constitutional right to regular outdoor exercise.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who retired in 2018 while serving as a federal appeals court judge, wrote that solitary confinement inmates have a right to fresh air.
“Some form of regular outdoor exercise is extremely important for the mental and physical well-being of prisoners,” he wrote in 1979 for a unanimous three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. “It was a cruel and unusual sentence for a prisoner who had been incarcerated for years with no way out except for occasional court appearances, discussions with a lawyer and hospital visits.”
In Mr. Johnson’s case, a divided three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit ruled that denying exercise for 90 days as punishment for serious misconduct did not violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. “Nor is it,” Judge Diane S. Sykes wrote for the majority in March 2022, “a violation of the Eighth Amendment to ‘stack’ such sentences.”
Mr. Johnson, represented by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, asked the Seventh Circuit to hear his appeal again. Court rejected him August 2022 by a tie vote, with five judges in favor and five against.
Disagreeing with the decision not to repeat the case, Judge Diane P. Wood he said that prison officials must no more deprive prisoners of exercise than they can starve or torture them.
“No one says that 24-hour deprivation, or even deprivation for two or three weeks, automatically violates the Eighth Amendment, any more than anyone would say that the Constitution gives Johnson a right to a state-of-the-art gym,” Judge Wood wrote. “But somewhere between three weeks and two years, the constitutional line was crossed.”