3 Liberal Supreme Court Justices Dissent in Cruel and Unusual Punishment Case

Denying a solitary-confinement prisoner access to exercise for three years violates the Constitution, says Justice Jackson.
3 Liberal Supreme Court Justices Dissent in Cruel and Unusual Punishment Case
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson poses for an official portrait in Washington on Oct. 7, 2022. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

The Supreme Court’s three liberal justices disagreed with the court’s decision not to hear the case of an Illinois inmate who claims that for three years he was illegally denied the opportunity to exercise while in solitary confinement.

In refusing to grant the petition in Johnson v. Prentice (court file 22-693), the justices declined to take up an appeal that would have looked at what rights are possessed by prisoners who have been isolated by authorities.

The court, which has a 6–3 conservative-leaning majority, denied the petition for certiorari, or review, in an unsigned order on Nov. 13. The court didn't explain its decision. At least four of the nine justices must vote for a petition for it to move forward to the oral argument stage.

Citing existing precedent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in her dissent that the treatment of mentally ill prisoner Michael Johnson, 42, of the Pontiac Correctional Center was “unusually severe.” For three years, Mr. Johnson had “no opportunity at all to stretch his limbs or breathe fresh air.” He first arrived at the facility in 2013.

The 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.”

“With respect to the Eighth Amendment claim at issue in this case, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment to prison officials without applying that well-established standard. Given this indisputable legal error, I would grant certiorari and summarily reverse,” she wrote.

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Jackson’s dissenting opinion was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

For almost three years, Mr. Johnson has been classified as “seriously mentally ill” by the Illinois Department of Corrections. He suffers from bipolar disorder, severe depression, and other diagnosed conditions.

During his years in solitary confinement, Mr. Johnson has been confined to “a windowless, perpetually lit cell about the size of a parking space” that was “poorly ventilated, resulting in unbearable heat and noxious odors.” The cell was also dirty, “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," the dissent reads. "Johnson was allowed out of his cell to shower only once per week, for 10 brief minutes.”

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

Inmates at the facility, even those placed in solitary confinement, are allowed at least eight hours of recreation time in the prison yard per week. In the yard, they are allowed to use basic exercise equipment and are given open space to walk around.

“[Mr. Johnson] was repeatedly placed under so-called ‘yard restrictions’ as punishment for various infractions, most of them minor, which resulted in the denial of any access to recreation outside his cell," Justice Jackson wrote. "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.”

With such a prolonged period of exercise deprivation, Mr. Johnson’s mental state deteriorated rapidly as he suffered from hallucinations and physically harmed himself.

“Johnson became suicidal and sometimes engaged in misconduct with the hope that prison guards would beat him to death," Justice Jackson wrote. "His muscles also became prone to spasms and cramping, and he often complained of overwhelming fatigue. He developed respiratory difficulties, including painful chest contractions and nosebleeds.”

His degraded physical condition led to more yard restrictions as prison guards blamed him for various disruptions and having an unclean cell.

“This vicious cycle continued month after month until Johnson was transferred to a specialized mental-health treatment unit, where his condition improved,” the justice wrote.

A federal district court ruled against Mr. Johnson. A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit subsequently upheld the ruling.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, the state of Illinois urged the court not to take up the case, arguing that the 7th Circuit had correctly upheld precedent.

The circuit court has consistently held that in this case and others that “yard restrictions must serve valid penological interests,” the state said.

Yet the cases cited by Mr. Johnson apply the same rule and undermine his argument. The lower court “correctly resolved petitioner’s yard-access claim based on the evidence before it and, even if it hadn’t, a request for error correction is not a basis for certiorari review.”

The state noted that from March 2013 through August 2016, Mr. Johnson was found guilty of 46 major prison rule violations arising from 30 incidents.

Mr. Johnson’s attorney, Daniel M. Greenfield of the MacArthur Justice Center in Washington, said he welcomed the dissenting opinion.

“We are grateful that Justices Jackson, Sotomayor, and Kagan recognized the panel majority’s ‘indisputable legal error,’” Mr. Greenfield told The Epoch Times by email.

“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. It should be no less shocking to us today,” he said.

The Epoch Times reached out to the Illinois attorney general’s office for comment but received none by press time.