The Supreme Court on Monday decided against hearing the appeal of an imprisoned man in Illinois who was locked in solitary confinement for three years straight without any access to the outdoors or opportunities to exercise.
Michael Johnson, who has been incarcerated since 2007 for a conviction related to home invasion and assault, was punished with solitary confinement after being involved in “countless” instances of prison violations, according to The New York Times. Johnson has been diagnosed with multiple mental health conditions, including severe depression and bipolar disorder.
Johnson was prohibited from exercise, which is normally allowed for inmates in solitary confinement, as prison officials “stacked” 30- to 90-day restrictions on him for mostly minor infractions. The consecutive restrictions made it impossible for him to get out of his cramped cell except for a 10-minute shower, once a week, during his time at the Pontiac Correctional Center.
“The deprivation was not imposed to ensure the safety and security of the exercise yard,” Johnson’s attorneys argued, according to CNN, “but rather to punish Mr. Johnson for engaging in misconduct that was born of mental illness and unrelated to exercise.”
In March 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected Johnson’s claim that solitary confinement coupled with a lack of outdoor time violated the Eighth Amendment. Johnson was represented by the MacArthur Justice Center.
Johnson and his attorneys then brought his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was rejected this week. Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented from the court’s decision in Johnson v. Prentice, calling it an “indisputable legal error.”
“For three years, Johnson had no opportunity at all to stretch his limbs or breathe fresh air,” Jackson wrote in the dissent. “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.”
“Johnson became suicidal and sometimes engaged in misconduct with the hope that prison guards would beat him to death,” Jackson wrote, arguing that Johnson’s treatment was evidence of “unconstitutional deliberate indifference.”
Johnson’s attorney, Daniel Greenfield, told HuffPost they are “grateful” for the dissent, but that “at the same time, we are 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.”
“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.”
The Illinois Department of Corrections told HuffPost that they are reviewing the court’s opinion, but did not offer further comment.
Monday’s decision contradicts a 1979 ruling from former Justice Anthony Kennedy during his time on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, The New York Times noted.
“Some form of regular outdoor exercise is extremely important to the psychological and physical well-being of the inmates,” Kennedy wrote at the time. “It was cruel and unusual punishment for a prisoner to be confined for a period of years without opportunity to go outside except for occasional court appearances, attorney interviews and hospital appointments.”
Many critics of solitary confinement describe it as “barbaric” and “inhumane.” Human rights organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch have condemned the use of solitary confinement, likening it to torture and arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment.
President Joe Biden committed to ending the use of solitary confinement, but it has only become more widespread at federal prisons, NBC News reported earlier this year. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) has lambasted the increase as “shameful” and is leading an effort in the House through the End Solitary Confinement Act to put an end to the practice.