Solitary inmate: 'I done forgot how it feels to touch another person . . .'

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Arthur Johnson (back center with light blue shirt) surrounded by relatives.

FRACKVILLE, Pa. - On a warm morning last week, couples were hugged up on comfy sofa chairs and buying snacks and soft drinks from vending machines. Happiness was everywhere, despite the setting: the visiting room at one of Pennsylvania's maximum-security prisons, the State Correctional Institute - Frackville.

Just feet from the couples, in a side room, a rail-thin man in an orange jumpsuit sat behind a thick window, his eyes obscured by a dated pair of prescription sunglasses.

He was seated, hemmed between the window and a floor-to-ceiling chain-link fence behind him. A camera was trained on him, mounted high on a cinder-block wall behind the fence. His wrists were handcuffed together in front of him, the cuffs chained to a leather restraint belt around his waist.

No hugging for Arthur Johnson, 63, unless you count the telephone receiver he managed to hold to his right cheek with his shackled hands.

No vending machines, either. Since 1979, Johnson has eaten all of his meals alone in his cell.

Johnson, who is doing life without parole for a 1970 Philadelphia murder, was sent to solitary confinement almost 37 years ago for allegedly attempting to escape more than once.

"I done forgot," he said, "how it feels to touch another person or to talk to another person without a [glass] screen or phone. . . . It's terrible," said Johnson, who is missing an upper front tooth and wears his hair on the back of his head in dreadlocks.

The decades that Johnson has spent in solitary confinement - longer than any other prison inmate in the state except for Daniel Delker, who killed a prison guard - are the basis of a federal lawsuit and a motion for a preliminary injunction to immediately let him live in the prison's general population.

Through the glass screen, he spoke last week with a reporter for the first time - just days before he appears in person Wednesday for the injunction. It will be the first time he's been freed for a courtroom appearance in 20 years. The lawsuit, filed in May by Johnson's attorney, Bret Grote with the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center, alleges that he is a victim of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

"It's torture. It violates international human rights standards and it's degrading to human dignity," Grote said. The confinement, he said, is "unthinkable" and "unimaginable."

Named as defendants are Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and a handful of other department officials.

Prison officials, however, say Johnson remains an escape risk and has not been rehabilitated - deserving to continue living each day in solitary.

On Friday, the Department of Corrections filed a brief opposing Johnson's motion for a preliminary injunction. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg.

The department argued that the preliminary injunction should not be granted for three reasons: because Johnson's lawsuit is not likely to succeed on its merits based on prior rulings in similar cases; because he is not suffering and will not likely suffer irreparable harm without such relief; and because granting the injunction would not be in the public's best interest.

"Releasing Mr. Johnson from [solitary confinement] before the [Department of Corrections] is certain that Johnson is not a threat to security, staff, and the inmate population, or that he will not attempt another escape, is irresponsible and frankly dangerous," the department's lawyers wrote.

"Public interest favors retaining Mr. Johnson in the [Restricted Housing Unit] . . . until he is rehabilitated or showing sincere signs that it is possible to reintegrate him into the general population safely and securely," the department's lawyers wrote.

Johnson, raised near Girard College's stone wall, dropped out of school after third grade and eventually became a member of the Seybert Street Gang.

But he claims to have left the gang five months before the gang slaying of Jerome Wakefield, who suffered both knife and gunshot wounds. Johnson denies any role in the killing.

An accomplice, however, implicated Johnson; Johnson, then 18, confessed. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Johnson later claimed that he was beaten by police, and that his confession should not have been admissible at his trial, because he suffers from intellectual disabilities. He says he mistakenly believed the confession he signed was merely giving consent to be interviewed.

Today, Johnson is self-assured and conversational, his speech cogent - in contrast to his reported below-average childhood intelligence, when he scored 70 and 63 on IQ tests.

Before his trial, Johnson recalled being offered a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for 10 to 20 years. He rejected the offer.

"How can you be remorseful for something you did not do?" he asked.

He also claims he's never tried to escape from prison, though prison officials say he was involved in a 1979 escape attempt that landed him in solitary, and that he plotted another attempt in 1984.

He contends the Department of Corrections has no evidence that he ever tried to escape.

Instead, Johnson said, he is a victim of guilt by association because he ran with imprisoned members of the black liberation movement in the early 1970s.

"I was involved with the Black Liberation Army," he said last week. In the early 1970s, he adopted the alternative name Cetewayo, meaning "warlike" in the Bantu language.

Johnson's lawyers say he has had three minor disciplinary infractions since.

"They say nothing's wrong with me mentally or psychologically, but I say there is a lot wrong with me. I just don't complain, and why complain when they don't care?" Johnson said.

"They don't see the psychological torment of being locked in a cell."

At Frackville, Johnson spends 23 hours a day in his 7-by-12-foot cell, where the lights stay on day and night. After being strip-searched, he's allowed out to shower, alone, three times a week; five days a week, he gets an hour-long outdoor recreation in a cage about the size of his cell, according to his lawsuit. He cannot see or talk to other inmates.

For the first 20 years, Johnson's cell was "stripped," he explained, devoid of books, television, or radio. He has them now and plans to write a book of his own - about life in a prison within a prison.

His hours are spent writing letters to relatives in impeccable penmanship. He does yoga in the cell he describes as being "smaller than many cages used to hold animals at zoos."

Johnson said he keeps sane with those activities and by not dwelling on the past.

As he spoke, he was aware his fellow inmates were visiting with wives and girlfriends.

"A long time ago I told myself to forget about certain things, like women and partying," he said wistfully.

"I try not to think about that, because things like that could be torturous."

Johnson plans to testify at his hearing Wednesday, hoping to persuade the judge to grant the preliminary injunction so that he can live among other inmates for the first time in decades.

He said he is ready for his courtroom appearance.

"I will be able to articulate that I am not a threat to the general population. I'm a lot older, a lot more mature, and I know how to conduct myself," he said.

If he is allowed to leave solitary confinement, Johnson said, he wants to do more legal research on his murder case. And he would relish going to chow; talking to other inmates; going outdoors three times a day; and taking education classes.

"I struggle a lot, but I came up in a tough situation," said Johnson, whose mother died when he was a 2-year-old. "That's how I grew up."

deanm@phillynews.com

215-854-4172@mensahdean