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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
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Supreme Court refuses to correct prolonged solitary confinement, provoking liberal dissent

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said a lower court failed to consider whether leaving an inmate in solitary confinement for three years resulted in cruel and unusual punishment.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court’s liberal minority dissented on Monday to a decision to leave a lower court ruling in place that said an Illinois man's three-year stint in solitary confinement was not cruel and unusual punishment.

Led by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the justices dissented to a denial of certiorari from Michael Johnson, who spent years in a poorly ventilated windowless cell the size of a parking space often covered in human waste. Jackson said an appeals court failed to consider the risk to Johnson’s health, instead focusing on his minor infractions that restricted his ability to leave his cell. 

Jackson characterized the lower court ruling as an indisputable legal error that she — along with Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — would have remedied by reversing. 

“This court has long held that the test for evaluating an Eighth Amendment challenge to a prisoner’s conditions of confinement involves determining whether prison officials acted with ‘deliberate indifference’ to a substantial risk to an inmate’s health or safety,” Jackson wrote. 

Johnson filed a lawsuit against Pontiac Correctional Center officials claiming they had unconstitutionally deprived him of exercise. Prisoners like Johnson who are placed in solitary confinement are entitled to one hour of out-of-cell exercise five days a week. Johnson, whom the Illinois Department of Corrections diagnosed as seriously mentally ill, was deprived of this out-of-cell time as punishment. 

Yard restrictions are imposed for a period between 30 and 90 days but Pontiac stacked Johnson’s in a way that left him without exercise for three years straight. 

Stuck in his cell with no reprieve, Johnson’s mental health further deteriorated. He suffered from hallucinations, excoriated his own flesh, urinated and defecated on himself, and smeared feces on his body and cell. Johnson was only allowed out of his cell once a week for a 10-minute period to shower and was unable to clean his cell unless he purchased items from the commissary. Johnson became suicidal. His body also deteriorated, resulting in muscle spasms, cramping, and fatigue.

The prison said Johnson assaulted staff members and other inmates, damaged surveillance equipment, disobeyed direct orders, and damaged property, among other infractions. Johnson’s attorney argues this behavior was due to Johnson’s mental illness. 

Johnson was eventually transferred to a specialized mental health treatment unit. 

A lower court ruled against Johnson’s Eighth Amendment claims and the Seventh Circuit affirmed. The appeals panel relied on the court’s 2001 ruling in Pearson v. Ramos, finding that because Johnson’s misconduct was not trivial, the prison was justified in depriving him of his yard time. 

The use of Pearson’s “utterly trivial infraction” rule is what led the three liberal justices to dissent on Monday. Jackson argues the appeals court used the wrong standard. 

“The ‘right legal standard’ for evaluating Johnson’s Eighth Amendment no-yard-access claim is well established,” the Biden appointee wrote. “As this court has long explained, the Eighth Amendment prohibits conditions of confinement that are attributable to a prison official’s ‘deliberate indifference’ to an inmate’s health or safety, for in such cases, it can be fairly said that ‘the official has inflicted cruel and unusual punishment.’” 

Jackson said the court has specified that knowingly putting inmates at health and safety risks violates the Constitution, and that’s what she sees happened in Johnson’s case. In Jackson’s view, the Pearson test looks at prison officials' rationale for imposing punishments, not the impact of those punishments. 

“In other words, the focus of the correct assessment is on the evidence concerning the risks presented to the inmate and the prison officials’ knowledge of and response to those risks,” Jackson wrote. “And for summary judgment to be properly awarded to prison-official defendants, there cannot be any genuine dispute about the insufficiency of the prisoner’s showing related to the risks posed by the complained-of condition or the official’s knowing and deliberate disregard of them.”

Johnson's attorney said he appreciated Jackson's dissent but was troubled by the decision.

"We are grateful that Justices Jackson, Sotomayor, and Kagan recognized the panel majority’s 'indisputable legal error,'” Daniel Greenfield, an attorney with the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, said in a statement. "At the same time, we are saddened to live in an era where such immense suffering is acceptable to any federal judge, let alone the majority of a circuit panel. Three years of 24/7 solitary confinement unrelieved by any opportunity for exercise would have appalled the Founders. It should be no less shocking to us today."

The high court majority did not provide an explanation for denying Johnson’s certiorari petition. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Criminal

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