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The Philly man who's spent three decades in solitary

Arthur Johnson has used neither a cellphone nor the internet. He's never voted, married, or had children. It was long after the funerals of his father, two brothers, and the grandmother who helped raise him that he even learned of their deaths. For nearly 37 years, he has dined alone.

Lawyer Bret Grote (left) has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Arthur Johnson, a Philadelphia grade-school dropout who has been in solitary confinement for more than 30 years.
Lawyer Bret Grote (left) has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Arthur Johnson, a Philadelphia grade-school dropout who has been in solitary confinement for more than 30 years.Read more

Staff writer Mensah M. Dean was awarded Morgan State University's 2017 Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence for a series of stories on Arthur Johnson, who was kept in solitary confinement for 37 years. This was his first story on Johnson, published June 15, 2016. 

Arthur Johnson has used neither a cellphone nor the internet. He's never voted, married, or had children.

It was long after the funerals of his father, two brothers, and the grandmother who helped raise him that he even learned of their deaths. For nearly 37 years, he has dined alone.

"Beyond the necessary contact with prison staff, I have not touched another human since 1979," Johnson said in a declaration that is part of his federal lawsuit against John Wetzel, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections secretary, and five other DOC officials.

The suit, filed in May by the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center, is Johnson's latest attempt to win freedom from a prison within a prison.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania calls Johnson's living arrangement "restricted housing" or "restricted release." In everyday parlance, it's called solitary confinement - the hole.

It's where Johnson, a Philadelphia grade-school dropout with an IQ classified as "educable mentally retarded," has lived since December 1979, when he was 27. Now, the convicted murderer is 63.

The punishment is "unthinkable, unimaginable," says Johnson's attorney, Bret Grote, 34, who was not yet born when his client was banished from the prison general population.

"It's torture. It violates international human rights standards, and it's degrading to human dignity," said Grote, who alleges that Johnson's decades' long term in solitary violates prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment found in the Eighth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

While every state uses some form of isolation for prisoners who break rules or are deemed dangerous to staff and other inmates, few offenders are isolated as long as Johnson.

"I don't know the particular case, but for anybody to be in solitary confinement for that length of time is crazy, it's ridiculous," said Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Prison Society, which advocates for inmates' rights.

Johnson rarely gets visitors. His mother died when he was 2. He described his life in his written declaration:

"For the past 36 years of solitary confinement, the Pennsylvania DOC has not allowed me to work, take classes, or participate in any activities within the prison." Solitary, he wrote, "has caused me to not feel emotions like I once did. I can no longer understand the feelings of others. I feel flat and depressed."

'The most recalcitrant'

Corrections Secretary Wetzel was not available to comment, said spokeswoman Amy Worden, who issued a statement detailing how inmates like Johnson end up on the Restricted Release List - the passport to solitary confinement.

Infractions include a history of assaultive behavior against staff or inmates, sexual abuse, escape or serious escape attempts, and threats to orderly prison operations, such as being involved with a gang.

Johnson has been accused of involvement in at least two escape plots, Grote said.

Of the department's 49,000 inmates, 2,349 are in a form of solitary confinement, including those who are in protective custody and on death row. Just 110 are like Johnson - placed on the Restrictive Release List.

Housed at the State Correctional Institution at Frackville, a 104-mile drive from Philadelphia, Johnson's world is a 7-by-12-foot space where the lights stay on day and night. The steel door to his cell has a narrow window that permits a constricted view onto the block, but makes it impossible to see or talk to other inmates.

Johnson leaves the cell only to shower, alone, three times a week, and for hour-long outdoor recreation in a caged area about the size of his cell five days a week, according to the lawsuit.

"Each time I leave my cell I am forced to undergo a mandatory strip-search," Johnson wrote.

He's been locked up alone longer than any inmate in the state except Daniel Delker, in solitary since 1973 for killing a guard at the state prison in Fayette.

This designation, according to the department's statement, "is reserved for only the most recalcitrant inmates who represent a critical security threat based upon the magnitude or repeated nature of his/her misconduct."

Grote scoffs at the idea that Johnson is a danger. His record shows three disciplinary infractions in 25 years, none serious.

Why has Johnson been in solitary so long? His lawyer can only speculate:

"There's a certain amount of institutional inertia that is clearly at play. This person has been locked down for so long, that sends the message to the guards, to those who run the institution . . . that this is where Mr. Johnson belongs."

The lawsuit states that Johnson has never been provided written explanation of the basis for his being kept in solitary confinement, nor has he been told what is required of him to be released to the general population.

No escape

Johnson's ride to the deepest of holes started on Oct. 6, 1970, when he was 18. He was in a gang fight on a Philadelphia street that left a young man named Jerome Wakefield fatally wounded by a bullet and a blade, according to court records.

An accomplice, who passed a polygraph test, told police Johnson did it. Johnson confessed, and was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

He later would claim that police beat him and that the confession should not have been admissible during his trial because he suffers from intellectual disabilities and is classified as "educable mentally retarded," based on IQ scores of 63 and 70, obtained at ages 14 and 8, respectively.

The state Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and sentence in 1976.

In the early 1970s, Johnson began running with imprisoned members of the black liberation movement, and "became a target for severe state repression," the Abolitionist Law Center said.

He was accused of being involved in an escape attempt in 1979, resulting in his being sent to solitary confinement.

He was accused again of plotting escape in 1984, an accusation Grote calls fantasy. "I do not know how somebody escapes from a cell they are locked in 23 to 24 hours per day, and which you can only leave after being handcuffed and handled by at least two guards," Grote said.

Since 1979, Johnson has been shuffled to nearly a dozen state prisons - always to solitary - except for a six-month stint in 1989-90, when he was housed in federal custody due to a lack of space in the state system.

Johnson wrote that his cell is "smaller than many cages used to hold animals at zoos."

A social death

On any given day, upward of 80,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement in U.S. and state prisons, according to the Abolitionist Law Center.

Last July, President Obama slammed the practice during a speech at the NAACP national convention in Philadelphia.

"Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?" asked Obama, who ordered the Justice Department to conduct a review of the "overuse" of solitary confinement.

"That is not going to make us safer. That is not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It's not smart," the president said.

In March, the Justice Department recommended that solitary confinement "be used rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints."

Craig Haney, a professor of psychology and director of the Legal Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said Johnson has suffered psychological damage and a "social death" due to his prolonged isolation.

Hired by Johnson's legal team to interview him in depth as part of the lawsuit, Haney's 90-page report stated:

"He told me that he has undergone many changes over the years, losing his bitterness and also his fight. Beyond that, however, he has also begun to lose his will to go on. He said simply, 'I can't stand to live like this.' "

The staff at Frackville and the other prisons where Johnson has been held have never evaluated the effect of his long-term solitary confinement on his mental health, according to the lawsuit.

"The Pennsylvania DOC has subjected Mr. Johnson to extremely adverse conditions of confinement ... for an almost unbelievable, unprecedented length of time," Haney wrote.

"Mr. Johnson's situation is almost unique in its severity."