37 years in solitary confinement is enough for inmate from Philly, judge rules

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Arthur Johnson, 64, a grade-school dropout with an IQ classified as "educable mentally retarded," is doing life in prison without parole for a 1970 gang-related murder. After several attempts at escape, he was placed in solitary confinement in 1979.

HARRISBURG - In a case that trained a spotlight on the state's corrections practices, a federal judge ruled Tuesday that a convicted murderer from Philadelphia who has spent nearly 37 years in solitary confinement must be transitioned into the prison's general population.

Judge Christopher C. Conner said prison officials' decision to keep Arthur Johnson in "institutional exile" for decades in an "area smaller than the average horse stall" at the state prison at Frackville because they thought he was a security threat was flawed.

"Astoundingly, Mr. Johnson continues to endure this compounding punishment, despite the complete absence of major disciplinary infractions for more than a quarter century," Johnson, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, wrote in a 26-page ruling.

He ordered all sides to submit by next Wednesday a detailed plan to allow Johnson to be reintegrated into the prison's general population.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections said the agency was reviewing the decision.

Reached for comment late Tuesday, Bret Grote, one of Johnson's lawyers, said he was "elated," and called the corrections department's characterization of Johnson as an unapologetic escape artist conjecture.

"The speculative concerns raised by [corrections officials] I think have been rebutted by nearly 30 years of impeccable conduct," he said.

Julie Burnett, a cousin of Johnson who was 4 when he went to prison, said she was overwhelmed.

"I've been praying about this thing and praying about it and I'm just glad it's over," she said.

Johnson, 64, a grade-school dropout with an IQ classified as "educable mentally retarded," is doing life in prison without parole for the 1970 gang-related murder of Jerome Wakefield in Philadelphia. Johnson was then 18. He was convicted of shooting and stabbing Wakefield during a fight on a Philadelphia street.

After several attempts at escape - during one, he allegedly bound a prison guard and locked him in a cell - he was placed in solitary confinement in 1979.

He has remained there since.

With help from the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center, he sought a preliminary injunction this year to be allowed to serve out the remainder of his term in the general population. He alleged he is a victim of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The corrections department objected, contending Johnson remained at high risk for misbehavior and has signaled that he has not abandoned his plans to escape as soon as he gets a chance.

"The court has no crystal ball," Conner wrote. "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."

In addition to ordering a plan of Johnson's reintegration into the general population, Conner requested a plan for monitoring Johnson's transition into the general population and providing him with mental health counseling during that time.

The goal is for Johnson to be reintegrated within 90 days of being transferred to a prison that has the ability to carry out the plan.

The judge said that if corrections officials determine that Johnson's reintegration must be delayed, whether for security or other reasons, they must document their reasons in detail.

During arguments in the case this summer, Johnson told Conner he spends 23 hours each day in a 7-by-12 cell. He is allowed outside in the prison yard for an hour Monday through Friday, but only in a small, caged-in area. He is allowed showers three times a week, and he is led there in handcuffs, with a towel wrapped around him.

Before the court hearing, when he walked into the courtroom and shook the hand of one of his lawyers, he said he had not touched another human being in any meaningful way for nearly 37 years.

He told Conner that after years of solitary confinement, he suffers from sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, obsessive behavior, anger, loss of concentration, loss of short-term memory, and despair.

acouloumbis@phillynews.com

717-787-5934 @AngelasInk

Staff writer William Bender contributed to this article.