Friday, November 17, 2023

By Josh McGhee

Happy Friday, MindSiters. We’re coming to you a week early because of our Thanksgiving Holiday and Josh needs some rest.

This month, we’re exploring life inside prisons across the country. First, we chat with the attorney for Michael Johnson, a man with mental illness held in solitary confinement for his entire 3-year sentence in an Illinois Prison.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case. Next, we’ll take a look at the growing number of Louisiana deaths in custody related to drug overdoses. Then, we learn about people in need of psychiatric care languishing in unapproved jails in Mississippi and the law these facilities are ignoring.

Let’s get into it…

Isolating a person for 3 years in a windowless cell 24/7 with no exercise or fresh air isn’t cruel or unusual, Supreme Court says

This week, over an impassioned dissent from three justices, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case of a former Illinois inmate who suffered from mental illness and was deprived of outdoor exercise for nearly three years while confined to a small, windowless cell.

The case stems from Michael Johnson’s time at Pontiac Correctional Center, where he was serving time for home invasion and assault. Johnson has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and severe depression, and his condition is acknowledged by the corrections system. During his time there, he violated rules by disobeying guards, spitting at officers and damaging property. Those rules violations resulted in him being confined to a tiny cell and deprived of the hour-a-day exercise period that prisoners in solitary confinement are typically given. 

Johnson himself filed a lawsuit against prison officials at Pontiac Correctional Center, contending that his isolation constituted cruel and unusual punishment, which is barred by the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. The federal trial court ruled against him and eventually, an appeals court split evenly, allowing the lower court decision to stand.

Johnson’s attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, but none of the six conservatives joined with the three liberals to hear Johnson’s appeal. The court needs four of its nine justices to agree to hear an appeal. The New York Times and other news outlets covered the court’s decision.

Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Photo: Supreme Court Photographer Fred Schilling, 2022.

While the conservative majority gave no explanation for their decision, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, joined by Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, argued in an eight-page dissent that the lower court erred in its ruling and found Johnson’s confinement was “unusually severe” and the jail conditions abhorrent. 

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

He wasn’t given cleaning supplies unless he purchased them, forcing him to clean the cells with his bare hands. He was only allowed out of his cell for about 10 minutes per week to shower, the dissenting justices noted. 

While ordinarily inmates in solitary confinement are allowed eight hours of outdoor recreation time, Johnson was placed on “yard restrictions” for his infractions for his entire sentence and wasn’t even allowed in the caged outdoor exercise area.

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

Johnson, 42, is currently on parole. MindSite News spoke with his attorney, Daniel Greenfield, the Supreme Court and appellate counsel for the MacArthur Justice Center. Greenfield began litigating civil rights cases for MacArthur in 2017 and is an expert in the law of solitary confinement. He’s also the co-director of the Prisoners’ Rights Clinic at UCLA.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Photo: STShank, Shutterstock

Josh McGhee: We’ve heard about a lot of cases of solitary confinement in prisons across the country. What makes Michael Johnson’s case different?

Greenfield: Solitary confinement always imposes grave physical and psychological injury. That’s been known for hundreds of years and is routinely confirmed today. Mr. Johnson’s case was different than the usual solitary confinement case because as an added punishment for misconduct born of his mental illness, prison officials deprived him of all access to exercise for approximately three years. 

What that means is that for those three years Mr. Johnson was locked, essentially 24/7, in a windowless cell sealed by a solid metal door. That cell being the size of a compact parking space or a queen size mattress, left him no ability to exercise within that cell. Keep in mind that one stores all of one’s possessions in that space from reading material to legal material to clothing, so there simply was no room for him to move around in there.

That sort of extended deprivation of the usual hour a day of exercise made Mr. Johnson’s case more extreme than the usual solitary confinement case which is already physically and psychologically devastating. 

How did solitary confinement, especially the lack of fresh air and exercise, affect Johnson’s mental health? And has it been able to improve since he was paroled? 

As a result of the combined impact of isolation without the salutary benefit of exercise, Mr. Johnson’s mind and body withered, as Justice Jackson wrote. He compulsively picked at his own skin. He smeared his own feces on his body and across his cell. His muscles became atrophied. He developed nosebleeds and, of course, his psychological state deteriorated rapidly, which resulted in his inability to keep his room organized – for which prison officials punished him with additional exercise deprivations.

His mental health has improved radically. In fact, it improved even before he was paroled because ultimately, the defendants transferred him to a specialized mental health care unit where he was afforded exercise and provided with appropriate medical care. That’s really all that was required. 

Prison is a counterproductive environment for everyone. Long prison sentences negatively impact psychological and physical wellbeing in ways that are counterproductive to the individual person and to society as a whole. But if  someone is going to be incarcerated, prison should not make them worse. Pontiac did. And when Michael Johnson was provided with access to exercise, appropriate mental health and medical care and other human beings, he improved, as would be expected.

The liberal justices wrote a pretty forceful dissent in this case. What does that tell us about the future of this kind of policy? 

Unfortunately, this case is at an end, but I hope that this powerful dissent from Justices Jackson, Sotomayor and Kagan will be a catalyst for change. 

The dissent sparked considerable media coverage in prominent national outlets. I am hopeful that Illinois officials will read the dissent, read the coverage, read the [appelate court]  opinions and come to the conclusion that the prison’s conduct in withholding exercise from anyone — let alone a person known to suffer from mental illness —  is inappropriate. Hopefully, it will encourage them to stop using this harmful and dangerous behavior.

Photo: FabrikaSimf, Shutterstock

Overdose deaths rising in Louisiana prisons

Incarcerated people keep dying in Louisiana, and increasingly they’re dying of drug overdoses. That was the finding of a June report from the Incarceration Transparency project at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.

The project, which has collected data on deaths between 2015 and 2021, found that in 2021 the number of drug overdoses reached a record high, accounting for 11% of all in-custody deaths that year.  

During those years, 1,168 incarcerated people died behind bars, and 5% of them died from an overdose. People held pre-trial made up almost a third of drug overdose deaths.

PBS News Hour looked at how the deaths of incarcerated people have affected members of their families. They spotlighted the story of Reginald Santinac Santinac and his high school sweetheart Monicka Henry.

Although he’d been incarcerated for the last 34 years, Santinac and Henry had begun making wedding plans and planning his life after prison. Then, on July 7, about 12 hours after one of their conversations, he died of a fentanyl overdose.

“He was in good spirits. We definitely had a future to look forward to. We wanted a life outside of prison,” Henry told Newshour. She noted that Santinac had earned his GED, certificates, and completed programs. “He was really doing the work that was necessary to function in society and to get out. How do we go from talking, and then a few hours later he’s gone?”

Recently, Santinac had been placed in lockdown, a form of isolation where his only contact was prison guards doing routine checks.  He and other inmates had turned to drugs to cope with the isolation of COVID lockdowns. Then, when he tried to quit cold turkey, he was written up for bad behavior, she said.

“It started to get the best of him. That’s why he started self-medicating, with drugs as a way of coping,” Henry said. “I expected that he would not be dying from use and that he would be sage. How did those drugs get in there?” 

Read the full story here.

Charged with no crime, hundreds of Mississippians languish in jails awaiting court-ordered mental health treatment 

Back in 2009, Mississippi state Sen. Joey Fillingane authored a law that made it illegal to jail people awaiting court-ordered psychiatric treatment – people who had not been charged with any crime – unless those facilities were certified by the Department of Mental Health.

To be certified, the law said, the jail must offer on-call crisis care by a doctor or psychiatric nurse, must have a supply of medication, and must have staff trained in crisis intervention and suicide prevention, among other measures.  

The bill passed with little fanfare, and Fillingane hoped it would create “some kind of minimum standard” for those awaiting commitment. In reality, the law didn’t do much, according to a report by ProPublica and Mississippi Today. The jails essentially ignored a law that had no real enforcement mechanism, the outlets found. 

Mike Harlin, the jail administrator in Lamar County,  recalled for the news sites his thoughts at the time the bill was passed: “What are you going to do? Are you going to shut the jail down? No.” 

Four years after the law’s passage, only two jail facilities were certified. Today, it’s down to one. Yet in a one-year period from July 2022 to June 2023, more than 800 people awaiting mental health treatment were jailed throughout the state, almost all in uncertified facilities, according to an analysis of state data by the outlets. Again, almost none of these people have been charged with a crime.

Mississippi appears to be the only state in the country where people needing and awaiting psychiatric treatment are routinely  jailed without charges for days or weeks at a time, the story revealed.

Mississippi jails aren’t subject to statewide health and safety standards. Since 1987, at least 18 people going through the commitment process for mental illness and substance abuse have died after being jailed, most of them by suicide.

Read more about the situation in Mississippi and how the reporting has pushed officials to make improvements.

Until next month,

Josh McGhee

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Josh McGhee is an investigative reporter covering the intersection of criminal justice and mental health with an emphasis on public records and data reporting. He has covered Chicago on various beats for...