Justices Split In Denial Of Solitary Confinement Challenge

By Katie Buehler | November 13, 2023, 3:35 PM EST ·

The U.S. Supreme Court split along ideological lines Monday when it declined to review a Seventh Circuit ruling that an Illinois prison's decision to deprive an inmate in solitary confinement of exercise for three years did not violate his constitutional rights — a ruling the court's liberal wing said was an "indisputable" error.

The justices voted 6-3 to deny Michael Johnson's January petition asking the high court to review a Seventh Circuit panel's affirmance of a ruling that ended his Eighth Amendment complaint against Illinois Department of Corrections officials. Johnson had argued that the appellate panel applied the wrong legal standard when it ruled his deprivation of exercise, also known as yard time, was not a cruel or unusual punishment.

Johnson claimed the panel's March 2022 opinion separated the Seventh Circuit from its sister courts by holding that the sanctions he received did not violate the Eighth Amendment because they were not issued in response to "some utterly trivial infraction of the prison's disciplinary rules."

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, agreed with Johnson in an eight-page dissenting opinion, writing that the appellate panel committed "indisputable legal error" by not applying the Supreme Court's "deliberate indifference" test, which requires courts to consider whether prison officials knew about but disregarded the substantial risk a punishment posed to a prisoner's health or safety. The panel also wrongly reviewed Johnson's punishments as individual events, the trio said.

"[The panel] did not consider the impact of cumulative exercise deprivation on Johnson's physical and mental health, or what was known to prison officials about the risks of such deprivation," Justice Jackson wrote. "And there was more than enough evidence to support a reasonable jury finding that the overall 3-year deprivation of yard time that Johnson was subjected to was the result of unconstitutional deliberate indifference."

The Supreme Court's three liberal justices said they would have granted review and summarily reversed the Seventh Circuit panel's opinion.

Johnson, whom the Illinois DOC deemed "seriously mentally ill," spent three years in solitary confinement at Pontiac Correctional Center, roughly 100 miles southwest of Chicago, until he was transferred to a mental health facility, according to court documents.

During his time in solitary confinement, Johnson received 16 "yard restriction" sanctions for "insolence," damage to or misuse of property or disobeying orders. Only four sanctions were issued in relation to acts of violence, all of which included spitting on another inmate or throwing liquid at prison staff.

Prisoners held in solitary confinement are entitled to one hour of exercise five days a week, according to court documents. Under "yard restrictions," exercise time is limited to one hour per month, but Johnson was deprived of even that limited exercise time, often for "insignificant reasons," he argued, and never because of security risks.

Johnson's mental health severely declined because of the restrictions placed on him. He experienced hallucinations, compulsively picked at his skin, and was placed on "suicide watch" repeatedly, according to court documents.

Before he was transferred to a separate mental health facility, Johnson filed a complaint against prison officials in Illinois federal court in June 2016. Johnson represented himself in the district court proceedings and eventually failed to properly oppose the officials' motion for summary judgment, which a judge granted in November 2018.

A split Seventh Circuit panel affirmed the lower court's summary judgment in March 2022, and the full circuit court denied Johnson's rehearing request in August 2022, according to court records.

Johnson's case was first listed for consideration at the Supreme Court's Sept. 26 conference and then relisted five times.

MacArthur Justice Center counsel Daniel Greenfield, one of Johnson's appellate attorneys, told Law360 on Monday that he is saddened by the court's decision but grateful to Justices Jackson, Sotomayor and Kagan for their dissent.

"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," Greenfield said. "Three years of 24/7 solitary confinement, unrelieved by an opportunity for exercise, would have appalled the Founders. It should be no less shocking to us today."

Counsel for the Illinois DOC officials and a spokesperson for the department did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

Johnson is represented by Daniel M. Greenfield, Cal Barnett-Mayotte, Felipe de Jesus Hernández and Rosalind E. Dillon of the MacArthur Justice Center.

The Illinois DOC officials are represented by Illinois Solicitor General Jane Elinor Notz and Frank H. Bieszczat of the Illinois Attorney General's Office.

The case is Johnson v. Prentice et al., case number 22-693, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

--Editing by Peter Rozovsky.

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