Constitutional Law Criminal Law

Pennsylvania Federal Judge Rules 37 Years of Solitary Confinement are Unconstitutional; State Settles Lawsuit

Arthur Johnson was 18 years old when he was convicted of murder following a street fight that occurred in 1970. He was sentenced to life without parole and committed to the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. He was a troubled inmate in his early years of incarceration, taking part in two violent escape attempts, the last one ending in 1987. While no one was injured in those attempts, in the 1979 attempt, a guard was blindfolded gagged and locked in a cell. Johnson has been in solitary confinement since the 1979 attempt. The Department of Corrections describes Johnson as “a model prisoner” since 1990 who has exhibited “exemplary behavior.” Notwithstanding that the Department has refused to return Johnson to General Population. So he filed a lawsuit in Federal Court seeking damages for being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. This past week the State settled the claim for $325,00.00.

Back in 2016, Federal Judge Christopher Conner had ruled that Johnson’s 37 years in solitary confinement was in fact cruel and unusual punishment. Citing the harsh conditions of his imprisonment and the mental anguish it imposed upon Johnson, Connor granted summary judgment to Johnson on his claim and ordered him returned to General Population. Johnson had spent those years under harsh conditions. Johnson‘s cell in was approximately seven feet wide by ten feet long,comprising a total area of sixty-eight square feet, of which forty-seven square feet are unencumbered. Johnson has a television, radio, bed, mattress, desk, and toilet, and his cell contains a small window with a view of the exercise yard. Two narrow windows in the cell‘s solid steel door permit an obstructed view of general population.The cell is illuminated by a security light twenty-four hours per day. Johnson eats, sleeps, washes up, and uses the toilet all within this sixty-eight square foot space.Johnson leaves his cell three times per week for a shower. Weather permitting, Johnson is allowed one hour of outdoor yard time each weekday. During yard time, Johnson is placed by himself in a nine-foot by twenty-foot cage. On weekends and days when inclement weather disrupts yard privileges, Johnson spends twenty-four hours in his cell. All of his immediate family members are now deceased but even when alive, he cold not have physical contact with them. In fact he had not had any physical contact with family or friends in more than thirty-six years. These draconian conditions are pretty much identical to NY’s solitary confinement conditions.

All Rights Matter

The question that comes from this case is why are we still allowing decades and decades of solitary confinement? A number of courts have resolved that the denials of basic human needs such as social interaction, environmental stimuli,exercise, and sleep which attend long-term isolation run afoul of the Eighth Amendment. See for example Shoatz v. Wetzel,2016 WL 595337 (W.D. Pa.Feb. 12, 2016) (twenty-two years); Ashker v. Brown 2013 WL 1435148 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 9, 2013) (more than twenty years) and Wilkerson v. Stalder, 639 F. Supp.2d 654 (M.D. La. 2007) (twenty-eight and thirty-five years). But despite these rulings, State Departments of Corrections still insist on using decades of solitary confinement. Even in cases where the subject of the confinement is no longer a “problem inmate.” Isn’t the ostensible purpose of prison to “rehabilitate” and “correct” behavior”? Johnson’s case proves the lie to that argument. Incarceration in the US is predominantly about warehousing people and that’s it. Never mind whether its a smart, worthwhile thing to lock up an 18 year old for the rest of his life even when, like Johnson, he has a demonstrable mental disability.

Paying $328,000 for 37 years of solitary is not going to get Pennsylvania to re-examine its correctional policy. And we certainly can’t count on this Federal Department of Justice to take a nationwide stand against long-term solitary confinement. Instead, it will take a continued process to change the mind-set of State voters to see that draconian sentences and cruel prison conditions don’t make us safer and don;t live up to the promise of the Constitution. We heard a lot about how our veterans are fighting for “our freedoms” when we shipped them over to Vietnam, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq. We tend to forget that one of those freedoms is the Eighth Amendment’s promise that we will be free from cruel and unusual punishments. We must start valuing that freedom in the same way we value our First and Second Amendment freedoms and we must start educating our youth that the criminal justice protections embedded in the Constitution’s Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments are just as worth fighting for as the freedom of speech, religion and assembly. Maybe we need to start an All Rights Matter! movement.

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