IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Liberal justices object as Supreme Court rejects prisoner's exercise claim

The case concerns Michael Johnson, a prisoner with mental health issues, who was denied almost all opportunities to exercise for three years while in solitary confinement.
Solitary Confinement Exercise
The Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Ill., where Johnson was held.David Proeber / AP file

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday refused to weigh under what circumstances prisoners in solitary confinement have a constitutional right to exercise, turning away an Illinois inmate's claim that he was denied the opportunity for three years.

The court's three liberal justices disagreed with the decision not to take up the case, with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson writing a lengthy dissenting opinion in which she called the inmate's treatment "unusually severe." The court has a 6-3 conservative majority.

Michael Johnson, who initially represented himself in legal proceedings, was barred from the normal one hour of exercise in an outdoor yard, typically available five days a week, between 2013 and 2016, his lawyers said in court papers.

Under prison rules, exercise privileges can be withdrawn temporarily for violations. Johnson, who has 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 repeatedly disobeying prison rules violated his right not to be inflicted with cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution's 8th Amendment.

He appealed to the Supreme Court after the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the state in March 2022 and subsequently declined to reconsider the case, with the judges split 5-5.

In an opinion joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Jackson said Johnson should have been allowed to pursue his claim that officials were deliberately indifferent to his health needs.

"The consequences of such a prolonged period of exercise deprivation were predictable severe. Most notably, Johnson's mental state deteriorated rapidly," Jackson wrote.

Lower courts, she added, failed to "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."

Daniel Greenfield, one of Johnson's lawyers, said that while he was grateful for Jackson's opinion, "we are saddened to live in an era where imposing such cruelty — let alone on a person known to suffer from mental illness — is acceptable to any federal judge."

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections said officials were reviewing the decision but had no additional comment.

The actions of prison officials served to exacerbate Johnson's mental health issues, his lawyers said in court papers.

"His muscles withered, he repeatedly smeared feces on his body, endured hallucinations, and compulsively picked at his own flesh, and he required 'suicide watch' time and again," they wrote.

Illinois Solicitor General Jane Notz, representing the state, said in a court filing that the appeals court ruling followed precedent, saying that yard restrictions do not violate the Constitution as long as they are supported by valid prison management policies.

Johnson has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and severe 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 battery he was until last month serving a new sentence in a facility that provides psychiatric care.