WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday refused to weigh in what circumstances prisoners in solitary confinement have a constitutional right to exercise, rejecting an Illinois inmate’s claim that he was denied the opportunity for three years.
The court’s three liberal justices dissented in the decision not to hear the case, with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson writing a lengthy dissenting opinion in which she called the inmate’s treatment “unusually severe.” The court has a 6-3 conservative majority.
Michael Johnson, who initially represented himself in court proceedings, was barred from the normal one hour of exercise in an outdoor yard, typically available five days a week, between 2013 and 2016, his lawyers said in court papers.
Under prison rules, practicing privileges can be temporarily withdrawn for violations. Johnson, who has mental health issues, was cited more than 70 times between 2008 and August 2016 for his behavior.
Johnson, 42, claims that the refusal to allow him to exercise as a result of his repeated disobedience of prison rules violated his right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution’s 8th Amendment.
He appealed to the Supreme Court after the Chicago-based 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the state in March 2022 and subsequently declined to reconsider the case, with the justices split 5-5.
In an opinion joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Jackson said Johnson should have been allowed to pursue his claim that officials were deliberately indifferent to his health care needs.
“The consequences of such a prolonged period of lack of exercise were predictably severe. Most notably, Johnson’s mental state rapidly deteriorated,” Jackson wrote.
Lower courts, she added, failed to “consider the impact of cumulative exercise deprivation on Johnson’s physical and mental health, or what was known by prison officials about the risks of such deprivation.”
Daniel Greenfield, one of Johnson’s attorneys, said that while he was grateful for Jackson’s opinion, “we are saddened to live in an era where it is acceptable for any federal judge to impose such cruelty — let alone on a person , known to suffer from mental illness”. .”
The actions of the prison officers served to exacerbate Johnson’s mental health problems, his attorneys said in court papers.
“His muscles withered, he repeatedly smeared feces on his body, endured hallucinations and compulsively picked at his own flesh, and called for ‘suicide watch’ over and over again,” they wrote.
Illinois Solicitor General Jane Notz, representing the state, said in a lawsuit that the appeals court’s decision followed precedent, saying yard restrictions do not violate the Constitution as long as they are supported by valid prison management policies.
Johnson has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and major depression. He was eventually moved to a mental health unit in 2016.
After serving his sentence, Johnson was released in 2019, but after being convicted of violence, he served a new sentence until last month in a facility that provides psychiatric treatment.