Right punishment? After 37 years, Arthur Johnson freed from solitary confinement

Arthur Johnson freed from solitary confinement: A federal judge ruled that a Philadelphia man’s three-decade long stint in solitary confinement will soon come to an end, mirroring a nationwide push to curtail the use of the punishment.

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections/AP
Arthur Johnson, a Pennsylvania inmate, won a court order freeing him from solitary after 37 years.

After spending 37 years alone in a 7- by 12-foot prison cell, a convicted murderer will be integrated back into the general population at a Pennsylvania state prison, a federal judge, who saw no reason for the harsh punishment to continue, ruled Tuesday.

Arthur Johnson, a 64-year-old Philadelphia man whose IQ places him in the category "educable mentally retarded," received a lifetime prison sentence for the 1970 murder of Jerome Wakefield, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. The then 18-year-old man was taken into custody and, after several failed escape attempts, sent to solitary confinement in 1979.

He said he has not had meaningful contact with other people since.

"Astoundingly, Mr. Johnson continues to endure this compounding punishment, despite the complete absence of major disciplinary infractions for more than a quarter century," Christopher Conner, the chief judge of the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, wrote in a ruling reported by the Inquirer.

The decision to move Johnson from his isolated cell comes as both federal and state prisons across the nation re-examine their use of solitary punishment. Earlier this year, President Obama signed several executive actions to curtail solitary in federal prisons, including a ban on placing juvenile offenders in such conditions and limits to how long adult offenders could be subjected to the punishment.

Between 25,000 and 80,000 inmates across the country can be in solitary at any given time. Rates of suicide and recidivism are much higher among these prisoners, as the isolated conditions can cause a wide array of mental and emotional health issues, experts say.  

It was clear to the court that Johnson had suffered during his time in solitary, telling Judge Conner that he now experiences sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, obsessive behavior, anger, loss of concentration, loss of short-term memory, and despair.

"It's easy to, by default, take the most troubling person and stick them in a cell," Vincent Schiraldi, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who formerly ran the juvenile corrections system in Washington, D.C., previously told The Christian Science Monitor. "Imagine being able to just make that [person] go away when you're personally very stressed, and then you can begin to see how this thing can get abused."

Johnson, who correction offers saw as a security threat, was a troubled inmate. He made several escape attempts, one of which included binding a guard and locking him in a cell.

But none of that, Conner ruled, is enough to keep a man locked away in a box for more than 30 years.

"The court has no crystal ball," Conner wrote. "It may well be that Johnson will endeavor to escape again. But Mr. Johnson ... will be subject to three decades of improvements in institutional security over the general population. The Department has at its disposal a broad array of investigative and penological techniques to dissuade even the most entrenched escape artist. Surely, there are less restrictive means to monitor Mr. Johnson than solitary confinement."

Johnson is expected to be transferred to a prison that can accommodate his transition and then moved into the general population within the next 90 days. The move, which carries concerns about prison security and Johnson's mental health, mirrors the national debate on how to avoid isolation policies that aren't helpful for inmates while also ensuring that anyone who could compromise the safety of guards or other prisoners is incarcerated responsibly.

"Solitary confinement is something that ought to be used as a last resort, because I don't think it promotes mental health, so you're not creating better citizens [upon release]," Paul Robinson, an expert on criminal sentencing at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia, previously told the Monitor. But at the same time, he says, "sometimes there are very good reasons [for using solitary] because for some people, solitary confinement is the only responsible way to incarcerate them." 

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