After 37 years, Arthur Johnson has been freed from solitary confinement and will be rejoining the general population. Mr. Johnson, 64, is considered mentally challenged and since 1979 he has had no contact with another human.
This has been Johnson’s routine for almost four decades. He is locked up for 23 hours each day in a 7-by-12 cell. During the weekdays, he has permission to be in a small caged area in the prison yard. He is authorized to shower three times a week.
What is the reason for this treatment? He has attempted on numerous occasions to escape from prison.
In 1970, at the age of 18, Johnson was convicted of shooting and stabbing Jerome Wakefield to death in Philadelphia. Authorities believed that it was a gang-related murder.
The then teenager was sentenced to life in prison without parole at the state prison in Frackville. While in prison, he attempted to escape at least twice. In 1979, he tried to flee by tying a guard and locking him in a cell.
Authorities decided to put him in solitary confinement, and he has been there ever since. Last year, Bret Grote, from the Abolitionist Law Center, and Jules Lobel, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, contacted two attorneys – Tom Jones and Pete Laun from Pittsburgh – and asked them to help get Johnson out from solitary confinement.
Court documents showed that Johnson revealed that he suffered from “sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, obsessive behavior, anger, loss of concentration, loss of short-term memory and despair.”
On Tuesday, after a lengthy court battle, U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner requested that Johnson be immediately released from solitary confinement. Conner ruled that the arguments against keeping him in confinement outweigh the concerns that Johnson might try to escape because for the past 25 years he has been a model prisoner. Mr. Conner wrote in a 26-page ruling:
“The court has no crystal ball. 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.”
The judge said:
“It is difficult to conjure up a more compelling case for reintegration to the general prison population. After 36 years of isolation, Mr. Johnson deserves the opportunity to shake hands with someone other than his attorneys.”
Conner also stated that officials have seven days to lay out a plan to “monitor Johnson’s mental health and gradually return him to the general population.”
Before the judge announced his decision, Johnson walked into the courtroom and shook the hand of one of his lawyers, and said:
“I had did not touch another human being in any meaningful way for nearly 37 years.”
Authorities are still against the order; they believe that Johnson will try to escape again.