Illinois inmate Michael Johnson suffered from what the corrections system acknowledged was profound mental illness. That made him hard to handle, and officials responded by putting him in solitary confinement. Total isolation, in a windowless cell, made things worse. He hallucinated, compulsively picked at his skin and smeared himself with his own waste. He was often on suicide watch. He violated prison rules, disobeying guards’ orders, spitting at them and damaging property. As a punishment, prison authorities took away the hour of exercise that prisoners in solitary were generally afforded five days a week, typically in a small, secured cage outdoors. The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to hear a case from Texas on whether prolonged solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment, which is banned under the Eighth Amendment, the New York Times reports.
The justices may prefer to start with a narrower issue, raised in Johnson’s petition seeking Supreme Court review: Do prisoners in solitary have a constitutional right to regular outdoor exercise? Most federal appeals courts have said yes. Retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, as a federal appeals court judge, wrote that prisoners in solitary confinement have a right to a little fresh air once in a while. “Some form of regular outdoor exercise is extremely important to the psychological and physical well-being of the inmates,” he said in 1979. In Johnson's case, starting in 2013, prison officials punished him for misconduct by canceling his “yard privileges,” meaning his ability to exercise outdoors. The individual punishments lasted from 30 to 90 days, but they added up, amounting to three years without that time. During that time, he was allowed to leave his cell for a weekly 10-minute shower and, in theory, a single hour of exercise each month. That hour, his lawyers said, was frequently canceled. Johnson, who was serving time for a home invasion and assault, was asking for a transfer to a mental-health unit. He sued prison officials in June 2016, saying that the prolonged denial of exercise had crossed a constitutional line. Two months later, the transfer was approved. A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that denying Johnson the ability to exercise for 90 days at time as punishment for serious misconduct did not violate the Eighth Amendment.