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Supreme Court Refuses to Limit Use of Long Solitary Confinement

The Supreme Court’s liberal minority dissented on Monday from a decision leaving in place a lower court ruling that an Illinois man's three-year stint in solitary confinement was not cruel and unusual punishment, according to Courthouse News. Led by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the justices dissented to a denial of certiorari from Michael Johnson who spent years in a poorly ventilated windowless cell. Jackson said an appeals court failed to consider the risk to Johnson’s health, instead focusing on his minor infractions that restricted his ability to leave his cell. Prisoners like Johnson who are placed in solitary confinement are entitled to one hour of out-of-cell exercise five days a week. Johnson, whom the Illinois Department of Corrections diagnosed as seriously mentally ill, was deprived of this out-of-cell time as punishment for three years straight. Stuck in his cell Johnson suffered from hallucinations, excoriated his own flesh, urinated and defecated on himself, and smeared feces on his body and cell.

The prison said Johnson assaulted staff members and other inmates, damaged surveillance equipment, disobeyed orders, and damaged property, among other infractions. Johnson’s attorney argues this behavior was due to Johnson’s mental illness. A lower court ruled against Johnson’s Eighth Amendment claims and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision. The appeals panel relied on a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, finding that because Johnson’s misconduct was not trivial, the prison was justified in depriving him of his yard time. The “utterly trivial infraction” rule is what led the three liberal justices to dissent on Monday. Jackson argues the appeals court used the wrong standard. Jackson said the court has specified that knowingly putting inmates at health and safety risks violates the Constitution. In Jackson’s view, the 2001 test looks at prison officials' rationale for imposing punishments, not the impact of those punishments. Johnson's attorney said he appreciated Jackson's dissent but was troubled by the decision. The high court majority did not provide an explanation for denying Johnson’s certiorari petition.


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