WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Monday refused to weigh under what circumstances prisoners in solitary confinement have a constitutional right to exercise, rejecting an Illinois inmate’s claim that he was denied that opportunity for three years.
The court’s three liberal justices disagreed with the decision not to take the case, and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote a lengthy dissenting opinion in which she called the inmate’s treatment “unusually harsh.” The court has a 6-3 conservative majority.
Michael Johnson, who initially represented himself in the legal proceedings, was prohibited from doing a normal hour of exercise at an outdoor patio, usually available five days a week, between 2013 and 2016, his attorneys said in documents. judicial.
Under prison rules, exercise privileges can be temporarily withdrawn in the event of violations. Johnson, who suffers from mental health issues, was cited more than 70 times between 2008 and August 2016 for his conduct.
Johnson, 42, claims that the refusal to allow him to exercise as a result of his repeated disobedience of prison rules violated his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
It appealed to the Supreme Court after the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of the state in March 2022 and subsequently declined to reconsider the case, with the justices split 5-5.
Jackson, in an opinion joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, said Johnson should have been allowed to continue his claim that officials were deliberately indifferent to his health needs.
“The consequences of such a prolonged period of exercise deprivation were predictably severe. Most notably, Johnson’s mental state deteriorated rapidly,” Jackson wrote.
The lower courts, he added, did not “consider the impact of the cumulative deprivation of exercise on Johnson’s physical and mental health, or what correctional officials knew about the risks of such deprivation.”
The actions of prison officials served to exacerbate Johnson’s mental health problems, Johnson’s attorneys said in court papers.
“His muscles withered, he repeatedly smeared his body with feces, he endured hallucinations and compulsively bit his own flesh, and he required ‘suicide watch’ over and over again,” the attorneys wrote.
Illinois Attorney General Jane Notz, representing the state, said in a court filing that the appeals court ruling followed precedent and said playground restrictions do not violate the Constitution as long as they are supported by valid management policies. penitentiary.
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 assault, he was serving a new sentence in a center that provides psychiatric care until last month.