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 November 15, 2023

The Supreme Court declines to hear a case concerning exercise and prison confinement

On Monday, in spite of objections from three liberal justices, the Supreme Court declined to consider a case concerning the purportedly unjust treatment of an Illinois prisoner.

The legal representatives for inmate Michael Johnson contended that his confinement in a bare room with limited access to water for showering constituted an infringement upon his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, according to a report by The Hill.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court after a lower court ruled that the treatment of Johnson did not rise to the level of cruel and unusual in nature, and therefore the court saw no need to take up the case.

Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by fellow justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, arguing that the appeals court failed to follow the proper precedent in making their decision.

According to the recently minted justice, Johnson's confinement was "unusually severe" compared to other conditions found in solitary confinement because he was deprived of access to an outdoor exercise space.

“Johnson spent nearly every hour of his existence in a windowless, perpetually lit cell about the size of a parking space,” she wrote. “His cell was poorly ventilated, resulting in unbearable heat and noxious odors. The space was also unsanitary, often caked with human waste.”

She detailed how Johnson was subjected to consecutive "yard restrictions" as a consequence, which entailed a three-year prohibition on his use of the outdoor exercise area. This ban was accumulated over the course of 90 days of infractions.

“Thus, for three years, Johnson had no opportunity at all to stretch his limbs or breathe fresh air,” Jackson wrote.

“He suffered from hallucinations, excoriated his own flesh, urinated and defecated on himself, and smeared feces all over his body and cell,” Jackson wrote. “Johnson became suicidal and sometimes engaged in misconduct with the hope that prison guards would beat him to death.

“Worse still, Johnson’s dire physical condition led to further yard restrictions, as prison guards faulted him for being disruptive and having an unclean cell,” she continued.

Later, the inmate was taken to a mental health treatment facility and, according to his attorney, that treatment caused a marked improvement in his condition.

Under review by the 7th Circuit of Appeals, which was the last place that heard Johnson's case, the justices petitioned ruled against him, saying that "yard restrictions" don't violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause.

In defense of the plaintiff, Jackson argued that Johnson's case was different because of the length and consecutive nature of the punishment. She also cited the mental instability of the patient at the time of his incarceration and subsequent punishments.

Speaking in her minority opinion, Jackson argued that the lower court “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."

Written By:
Charlotte Tyler

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