Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Pennsylvania prison sued after man spent 36-years in solitary confinement

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Since 1979, Arthur Johnson has lived in a 7-foot-by-12-foot cell, confined for 23 of every 24 hours, with the lights on at all times, and with little human contact. A lawsuit against Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and other prison leadership details 36 years of confinement during which Johnson, 63, has not had physical contact with a human being aside from incidental contact with staff, according to a federal lawsuit filed last month.


  • Arthur Johnson was held in solitary confinement since 1979, locked in a 7-foot-by-12-foot cell for 23 hours per day
  • A lawsuit is pending against Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel & other prison officials after spending over 30 years without any physical contact with a human being other than occasional prison staff, according to a federal lawsuit filed last month
  • Bret Grote, the legal director for Abolitionist Law Center, described his client’s confinement as torture
  • It violates international human rights standards, and it’s degrading to human dignity,” Grote told
  • The federal government found that Pennsylvania’s use of solitary confinement violated the civil rights of mentally ill inmates at SCI-Cresson in Cambria County in May 2013
  • The Justice Department found similar problems were ongoing throughout the state prison system
  • According to, Johnson was accused of plotting an escape attempt in 1984, while already in solitary confinement
  • Johnson was originally placed in solitary confinement after his alleged involvement in an escape attempt in 1979
  • states that only one other state inmate, Daniel Delker — has been in isolation since 1973 for killing a state prison guard
  • Johnson was sentenced to life in prison in 1970 when he was 18 for his role in a fatal gang fight in Philadelphia
  • The Department of Corrections provided PublicSource a general statement stating inmates “who pose a unique and serious long-term threat to institutional security” may be put on the Restricted Release List, which is reviewed on a regular basis, according to the statement
  • “We want him swiftly and promptly reintegrated back into the general population,” Grote told the Daily News
  • A department spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit but confirmed that Johnson is still in a “restricted housing unit”


  • He is not allowed visits with friend or loved ones that involve any physical contact, even a handshake or hug, as all visitations take place through a partition
  • Despite the “obvious and thoroughly documented risks and harms that result from long-term solitary confinement,” Johnson’s suit claims that he was never been examined by mental health staff regarding the impact solitary confinement may of had on him
  • Johnson suffers from “crippling anxiety, memory loss, loss of empathy, inability to concentrate, and depression,” according to court documents
  • Court documents state he is in a 7-by-12-foot cell — said to be “smaller than many cages used to hold animals at zoos”
  • “While he has been in solitary confinement, Mr Johnson’s cell has been lighted 24-hours per day, with no reprieve during night or day”
  • “For the entirety of his 36 years in solitary confinement, Mr. Johnson has been permitted one hour of time outside, five days of the week, in a fenced-in exercise cage that is slightly larger than his cell, and he is allowed this time only if the weather conditions are determined by prison staff to be acceptable”
  • “In one of the saddest moments in my interviews with him, Mr. Johnson told me that no prison officials had come to him to notify him on the occasions of his family members’ deaths, and that he received no special bereavement phone calls home in the wake of their passing”
  • “Instead, he learned unceremoniously through letters he received from other family members, telling him that these key people inches life had passed away. He was left to mourn these profound losses by himself, alone in his cell”
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