Pennsylvania Man Sues Over 36 Years in Solitary

     (CN) — Now in his 36th year of solitary confinement, an intellectually disabled man continues to face “extreme, unusual and cruel conditions” in a Pennsylvania prison, a federal lawsuit says.
     At the time of his homicide conviction, Arthur Johnson was just 18 years old and had a most recent IQ score of 63, according to court records.
     Nine years into his sentence, Johnson was suspected of being involved in an escape from SCI Pittsburgh in 1979. The Pennsylvania prison system has since shuffled Johnson to two other prisons, both of which kept him almost entirely deprived of human contact, according to the 26-page complaint.
     The lawsuit says that Johnson’s age now matches the IQ score that Philadelphia’s Board of Education deemed to be “retarded educable.”
     Johnson’s first stint in solitary confinement began in SCI Pittsburgh on Dec. 22, 1979, the day prison officials suspected him of involvement in an escape attempt.
     A few hours later, Johnson was transferred to another prison in Huntingdon, and he is now confined in SCI Frackville, according to the lawsuit.
     He says he has spent nearly all of that time in solitary confinement.
     “This is more than half of Mr. Johnson’s 63-year life and virtually the entirety of his time in prison,” his complaint notes.
     Johnson’s lawsuit describes his existence in a 7-by-12 foot cell — said to be “smaller than many cages used to hold animals at zoos” — in excruciating detail.
     “While he has been in solitary confinement, Mr. Johnson’s cell has been lighted 24-hours per day, with no reprieve during day or night,” the complaint states. “For the entirety of his 36 years in solitary confinement, Mr. Johnson has been permitted one hour of time outside, five days of the week, in a fenced-in exercise cage that is slightly larger than his cell, and he is allowed this time only if weather conditions are determined by prison staff to be acceptable.”
     “During his solitary confinement period, Mr. Johnson has never been permitted to enter the exercise cage with another person,” the lawsuit adds.
     Several more paragraphs depict Johnson’s utter isolation, allegedly eating all meals alone, forbidden from physical contact with friends and relatives, and banned from all institutional, vocational, or educational activities.
     Every time Johnson left his cell, he was subjected to a strip search, the lawsuit says.
     His attorney Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center said in a phone interview that Johnson’s spent more time in isolation than any other client he has had.
     Earlier this year, a Pennsylvania federal judge granted another of the firm’s clients — former Black Panther Russell Shoatz — an opportunity to convince a jury that his 22 years of solitary confinement violated Eighth and 14th Amendment prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment.
     Grote said that ruling was unprecedented in the Keystone State.
     Shoatz’s case featured a report by U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, who called four years ago for any more than 15 days in solitary confinement to be banned.
     Psychology Professor Craig Haney, another prominent expert who testified on the topic before Congress, attested to the “extreme psychological pain and lasting damage” that Johnson sustained from his experiences with “social death.”
     “In one of the saddest moments in my interview with him, Mr. Johnson told me that no prison officials had come to him to notify him on the occasions of his family members’ deaths, and that he received no special bereavement phone calls to home in the wake of their passing,” Haney wrote in a 90-page letter. “Instead, he learned unceremoniously through letters he received from other family members, telling him that these key people in his life had passed away. He was left to mourn these profound losses by himself, alone in his cell.”
     Johnson demands punitive damages for constitutional violations that “shock the conscience and [do] not have a rational basis.”
     His lawyer filed the lawsuit and a motion for an injunction against Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Department of Corrections John Wetzel and other prison officials on Thursday.
     A department spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit but confirmed that Johnson is still in a “restricted housing unit.”

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