Supreme Court Rejects Case on Outdoor Exercise for Prisoner in Solitary – US 247 News


Over an outraged dissent from its three liberal members, the Supreme Court on Monday turned down an appeal from a prisoner in Illinois held in solitary confinement who said that prolonged denial of outdoor exercise was cruel and unusual punishment.

As is the court’s custom, its brief order denying review gave no reasons.

In dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, wrote that the prisoner, Michael Johnson, was isolated in appalling conditions for almost three years at Pontiac Correctional Center.

“During that time, Johnson spent nearly every hour of his existence in a windowless, perpetually 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 caked with human waste.”

“And because Pontiac officials would not provide cleaning supplies to Johnson unless he purchased them from the commissary, he was frequently forced to clean that filth with his bare hands,” Justice Jackson continued. “Johnson was allowed out of his cell to shower only once per week, for 10 brief minutes.”

But none of that was the central issue in the case, Johnson v. PrenticeNo. 22-693.

“In addition to the typical hardships associated with solitary confinement,” Justice Jackson wrote, “prison officials completely deprived Johnson of exercise for nearly all of his incarceration at Pontiac.”

Mr. Johnson suffered from what the corrections system acknowledged was profound mental illness. He violated countless prison rules, disobeying guards’ orders, spitting at them and damaging property.

As a punishment for those violations, prison authorities took away the hour of exercise that prisoners in solitary were generally afforded five days a week, typically in a small, secured cage outdoors.

“Each yard restriction was imposed for a period of between 30 and 90 days, but the restrictions were stacked such that, in total, Johnson received over three years’ worth of yard restrictions,” Justice Jackson wrote. “The cramped confines of Johnson’s cell prevented him from exercising there. Thus, for three years, Johnson had no opportunity at all to stretch his limbs or breathe fresh air.”

“The consequences of such a prolonged period of exercise deprivation were predictably severe,” Justice Jackson continued. “Most notably, 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.”

Mr. Johnson, who was serving time for a home invasion and assault, was eventually transferred to a specialized mental health unit, where his condition improved.

Most federal appeals courts have said that prisoners have a constitutional right to regulate outdoor exercise.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who retired in 2018, wrote when he was a federal appeals court judge that prisoners in solitary confinement had a right to fresh air.

“Some form of regular outdoor exercise is extremely important to the psychological and physical well-being of the inmates,” he wrote in 1979 for a unanimous three-member panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco. “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.”

In Mr. Johnson’s case, a divided three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit ruled that denying him the ability to exercise for 90 days at a time as punishment for serious misconduct did not violate the Eighth Amendment. “Nor is it,” Judge Diane S. Sykes wrote for the majority“an Eighth Amendment violation to ‘stack’ such penalties.”

Mr. Johnson, represented by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, asked the full Seventh Circuit to rehear his appeal. The court turned him down by a tie vote, with five judges in favor and five against.

Dissenting from the decision not to rehear the case, Judge Diane P. Wood said prison officials may no more deprive inmates of exercise than they may starve or torture them.

“No one is saying that a 24-hour deprivation, or even a deprivation lasting two or three weeks, automatically violates the Eighth Amendment, any more than one would say that the Constitution entitles Johnson to a state-of-the-art gym, Judge Wood wrote. “But somewhere between three weeks and two years, the constitutional line is crossed.”