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Petitions of the week

Illinois man challenges nearly three-year denial of exercise in solitary confinement

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The Petitions of the Week column highlights a selection of cert petitions recently filed in the Supreme Court. A list of all petitions we’re watching is available here.

In most state and federal prisons, a person held in solitary confinement is allowed regular access to physical activity. However, guards can deny this access for a limited period in response to misconduct. This week, we highlight cert petitions that ask the court to consider, among other things, whether prison officials violated the Eighth Amendment when they repeatedly denied a mentally ill man held in solitary confinement access to exercise because of conduct infractions for stretches that, added together, totaled almost three years.

Michael Johnson is a state prisoner in Illinois. Diagnosed by prison examiners with bipolar disorder, severe depression, anxiety, and excoriation disorder (an obsessive-compulsive syndrome of picking and gouging one’s own skin), Johnson amassed a long list of rules violations that landed him in solitary confinement.

Beginning in March 2013, Johnson spent over three years in isolation. During this period, his mental-health regimen was inconsistent and he was regularly placed on suicide watch. Johnson continued to break prison rules, from spitting at guards, to throwing bodily fluids at a clinician, to smearing his own feces around his cell. In response to these infractions, Johnson was continually placed on “yard restriction” – limiting his allotted hour of outdoor or indoor physical activity from five days per week to one day per month.

By the time Johnson left solitary confinement in August 2016, he had spent the preceding 41 months with only a handful, and occasionally zero, hours of permitted exercise per year.

Johnson sued prison officials for damages for violating his civil rights. The district court ruled for the officials, and a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed 2-1.

Johnson then sought review by the full 7th Circuit, which denied his request by an equally divided vote. Half of the court held that continued deprivation of exercise while someone is held in solitary confinement only violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment when imposed as discipline for “trivial” misconduct. The other half disagreed that Johnson’s behavior justified the yard restrictions, and would have allowed Johnson to proceed with his claim in the district court.

In Johnson v. Prentice, Johnson asks the justices to revive his lawsuit against the prison officials. He argues that his lengthy confinement in isolation without physical activity – and often without a window – was cruel because it exacerbated his mental illness and atrophied his body. It was also unusual, Johnson contends, because every other circuit court of appeals permits this punishment only for behavior that poses a security risk, not simply for nontrivial infractions.

A list of this week’s featured petitions is below:

Johnson v. Prentice
Issue: Whether punitively depriving a prisoner in solitary confinement of virtually all exercise for three years notwithstanding the absence of a security justification violates the Eighth Amendment, or whether such a denial only violates the Eighth Amendment if it is imposed in response to an “utterly trivial infraction.”

Cohen v. Apple, Inc.
Issue: Whether state health and safety laws are impliedly preempted, under a purposes-and-objectives theory, by the Federal Communications Commission’s procedural guidelines for reporting how much radiation a cellphone emits.

Vidal v. Elster
Issue: Whether the refusal to register a trademark under 15 U.S.C. § 1052(c) violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment when the mark contains criticism of a government official or public figure.

Calcutt v. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Issues: (1) Whether Securities and Exchange Commission v. Chenery Corp. and its progeny required the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit to remand the case to the agency after determining that the agency had applied the wrong legal standards; and (2) whether Collins v. Yellen requires separation-of-powers challengers to offer concrete proof of prejudice as a prerequisite to courts resolving separation-of-powers challenges to removal restrictions on the merits.

Update (Feb. 23 at 10:02 a.m.): This article has been updated to reflect that Michael Johnson has been reincarcerated at a mental health facility run by the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Recommended Citation: Kalvis Golde, Illinois man challenges nearly three-year denial of exercise in solitary confinement, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 17, 2023, 4:27 PM),