37 Years in Solitary Confinement and Even the State Can’t Explain Why

If there’s a reason why Arthur Johnson has spent nearly four decades in solitary, Pennsylvania hasn’t given it—and now the case has national implications.

FRACKVILLE, Pennsylvania — Arthur Johnson has spent the past 37 of his 64 years alive in solitary confinement.

Over a span of four decades, he’s been shuttled from one correctional institution to another—often without notice, like a protagonist in a Kafka novel. Until very recently, his home of three years was the Restricted Housing Unit at the State Correctional Institution at Frackville, Pennsylvania.

He’s now in restricted housing at neighboring SCI Coal Township, where he is forced to spend 23 hours a day in a 7-by-10-foot cell with a light that never turns off. He suffers from crippling insomnia and is permitted to take just three, 10-minute showers each week.

Every time he leaves his cell—including the five trips he makes each week for one hour of exercise in an enclosed yard—he is required to undergo a strip search before he can go back inside. He exercises alone, the same way he eats every one of his meals.

By Johnson’s telling, he hasn’t shaken another person’s hand since Jimmy Carter was president. His attorney calls this a blatant violation of his civil rights.

“No court is going to take away the right of prison officials to use solitary confinement for a period of days or even months,” Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center told The Daily Beast. “But how long is too long or too dangerous? Wherever that line may be drawn, we are way over it here.”

In May, Grote filed a lawsuit on behalf of Johnson in federal court, accusing officials at Frackville and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections of violating his client’s constitutional rights to be free of cruel and unusual punishment and to equal protection under the law by keeping him in solitary confinement for so long. Last week attorneys for both parties filed their final briefs in Johnson’s motion for a preliminary injunction. A ruling is expected soon.

Johnson’s status as one of the longest serving solitary inmates in modern corrections history began three days before Christmas in 1979, when he was put in “the hole,” as prisoners call it, for his role in an escape attempt from SCI Pittsburgh. Though no one was injured in the attempt, a guard was bound and locked in a cell.

An inmate at SCI Frackville who says he encountered Johnson in the restricted housing unit (RHU) at SCI Graterford in 1993, following his own escape attempt, told The Daily Beast that every single co-conspirator in the 1979 escape attempt is now in general population or has been released from confinement. At the time of their meeting, the inmate said, Johnson had been in solitary confinement for 14 years and was already showing signs of mental distress.

“It was evident that his motor skills were deteriorating. He had difficulty forming sentences and maintaining a coherent train of thought,” said the inmate, a juvenile lifer who asked that he not be identified by name. “He kept repeating himself and he noticed my look of bewilderment. By that time I had only spent a year or so in the RHU, where he had already been in there for over a decade.”

Johnson’s lifelong relationship with the correctional system began in 1973, when he was convicted by a jury for his role in the murder of a man named Jerome Wakefield three years earlier. The only evidence against him was a confession that he claims was coerced.

To this day, he steadfastly maintains his innocence.

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Johnson’s confession—or even his guilt or innocence in the killing of Wakefield—has no bearing on this current case. However, a little historical context offers insight into the environment Johnson entered when the prison gates first closed behind him.

In 1970 the city of Philadelphia was perched atop a powder keg of racial strife that makes #BlackLivesMatter look like a book of matches. Under the leadership of head-cracking Police Commissioner (and soon to be Mayor) Frank Rizzo, the Philadelphia Police Department had declared open warfare on suspected black power groups after learning the Black Panther Party had chosen Philadelphia for its Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention.

Throughout the summer tensions grew, and they came to a head during the last weekend of August with the assassination of a police officer named Frank R. Von Colln by an alleged member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA).

The response from Rizzo’s PPD was swift and brutal. He ordered a massive manhunt for Von Colln’s killer and initiated violent raids on Black Panther offices around the city. Over a period of three days, seven Philadelphia police officers were shot, making it the bloodiest weekend in PPD history.

Barely a month after Von Colln’s killing, Johnson—who was 18 at the time—entered a PPD interrogation room for questioning in the Wakefield murder and promptly confessed to the crime.

Whether Johnson was a BLA member at the time of his arrest is not known, but by the time he landed at Pittsburgh’s Western Penitentiary to begin his life sentence, he had adopted the African name “Cetawayo”—in honor of a Zulu king renowned for his battle prowess and brutality. Within a few years Cetawayo established himself as a prominent voice for black power politics inside Pennsylvania’s prison system.

In the early 1970s, he may as well have been wearing a target on his back.

In 1975 Johnson challenged his conviction partly on the basis of his allegedly coerced confession. He testified that he was beaten by the investigating officers and forced to sign a typed confession drafted by a police officer without being given an opportunity to read it. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania refused to suppress the confession and order a new trial, and Johnson receded back into the prison system where he was about to disappear for the next four decades.

In 1977, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a series called the “Homicide Files” that exposed the high number of false confessions elicited by Philadelphia police in the years following Von Colln’s death.

In a surreal twist of fate, this summer, as the state of Pennsylvania was filing its first motions in the Johnson case, it agreed to pay a $99,000 settlement to a convicted cop killer named Russell Shoats for violating his constitutional rights by keeping him confined to administrative custody for 22 years straight.

In 1970 Shoats was an active member of the Black Liberation Army and out for blood. His victim: Sgt. Frank Von Colln.

Like Johnson, Shoats had been assigned to administrative custody after two escape attempts. Unlike Johnson, his were successful, and the last one ended in a shootout with police. He is now back in the general population at SCI Graterford serving out his life sentence.

Whether Johnson gets to do the same is now in the hands of the courts.

This summer a judge in Harrisburg heard testimony from several witnesses, including a psychologist who has spent years studying the effect of long-term isolation on mental health. Dr. Craig Haney stated that Johnson’s “pervasive isolation” has led to cognitive impairment, chronic depression, emotional pain and suffering, and other psychological harms.

“Whatever justification the Pennsylvania DOC may have had for placing Mr. Johnson in isolation in the distant past, his long-standing nonviolent prison record and his increasing age provide ample evidence that those justifications no longer exist,” Haney testified.

The DOC’s own mental health expert acknowledged that Johnson exhibited signs of “irritability” and “depression” but insisted that those symptoms do not support a clinical diagnosis.

Court records supplied to The Daily Beast make it difficult to put much faith in the agency’s commitment to authenticating that assessment. During a hearing in August, a psychologist called by Johnson’s lawyers testified that his review of official documents dating back as far as 2003 show the DOC made little effort to address his concerns, and even less in explaining the reason for Johnson’s continued placement in solitary confinement:

“Based on the files I reviewed there do not appear to be any meaningful substantive responses from Pennsylvania DOC officials to Mr. Johnson’s numerous requests to be released from isolated confinement,” said Haney. “Instead the DOC uses the same uninformative boilerplate language it used purporting to justify his decades in solitary confinement.”

Johnson’s attorneys also called Martin Horn, who served as head of the DOC from 1995 to 2000. He said providing Johnson an opportunity rejoin the general population is “good correctional practice.”

For decades prisoners have referred to solitary confinement as “the hole,” but correctional officials prefer the term “restricted housing.” It comprises “disciplinary custody” (typically used for short periods as punishment for some infraction) and “administrative custody” (reserved for only the most “recalcitrant inmates who represent a critical security threat,” according to the Department of Corrections).

Johnson’s predicament is further complicated by his inclusion on a special list created by the DOC ostensibly to single out inmates in restricted housing who pose a heightened risk. A subset of administrative custody, it’s known as the Restricted Release List and is reserved for inmates who “pose a threat to the secure operation of the facility,” the corrections department said.

Arthur Johnson was added to the RRL in 2009, 30 years after his attempted escape, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. He is one of only 110 inmates—out of a statewide population of more than 48,000—on restricted release.

Unlike other prisoners, who come and go from administrative custody at the discretion of their facility’s superintendent, inmates designated RRL can only get out with the express permission of the secretary of corrections.

John Wetzel, who’s held that position since 2011, says he has good reason to keep Johnson in indefinite isolation. But it’s difficult to come to that conclusion from the meager evidence the state has provided. For the most part it consists of the fact that Johnson has tried to escape (in 1979, and possibly again in 1984), and a 2006 interview in which Johnson reportedly suggested to a social worker that he would do so again, before taking back the statement.

Secretary Wetzel has earned a well-deserved reputation as a prison reformer. In 2013 he traveled to Europe and toured prisons in Germany and the Netherlands, where inmates are allowed to vote, and many go home to stay with family on weekends. He has promised to inaugurate more progressive policies in Pennsylvania’s more than two dozen state correctional facilities, and he has complained that in many cases his hands are tied by a legislature that lacks the political will to get behind real change.

All of this makes his hardline stance in the matter of Arthur Johnson all the more difficult to comprehend.

Wetzel declined an invitation to comment personally on his rationale but spokeswoman Amy Worden provided a statement to The Daily Beast:

“While the department cannot speak to Mr. Johnson’s specific case as it is in active litigation, we would like to point out that there are a number of different reasons that an inmate would be placed in administrative custody within the DOC system. The length of the custody varies from case to case, as does the kind of privileges allowed and the time allowed outside of one’s cell.”

Judging by the DOC’s defense strategy, it’s Wetzel’s belief that if Johnson is released to the general population, he will try to escape again. His “smoking gun” is a report from a prison psychologist named Siena Smith who recently joined the staff at Frackville and interviewed Johnson last October for his annual mental health review.

The Daily Beast was unable to ascertain the contents of that report because it was sealed at the request of the Department of Corrections. But on the day it was submitted, along with Smith’s testimony, Johnson was abruptly transferred to a new facility directly from the courthouse. He would never return to SCI Frackville.

Grote, who is fighting to have that document made public, says there is nothing in Smith’s testimony that would support Wetzel’s conclusion. The judge overseeing the case, Christopher Connor, has himself called the report “vague and incomplete.”

The one thing everyone seems to agree on, including Johnson’s Frackville jailers, is that for as long as anyone can remember, he has been a “model prisoner.” Over the past two decades he has received just one disciplinary infraction—for taking a multivitamin pill given to him by a prison nurse back to his cell, in violation of prison policy.

The state released summaries of four recent psychological reviews that show Johnson to be an exceptionally calm, quiet individual. According to Grote, at least three of the officials named as defendants in Johnson’s suit previously recommended his re-entry into the general population.

“Mr. Johnson does follow the rules, but even though time has passed, there’s still that concern based on the things that have happened in the past,” said Dr. Robert Marsh, director of Frackville’s Psychology Office. “He has done very well following the rules, but it’s hard to outrun the past.”

That last phrase could easily apply to the Pennsylvania correction system itself, which is internationally recognized as the birthplace of solitary confinement.

The Quaker theologians credited with creating the modern penal system in the early 19th century believed that the key rehabilitation was quiet reflection, or “penitence.” They abandoned colonial-era punishments like the stock and built the world’s first penitentiary, Eastern State—where inmates were forced to spend 23 hours a day in isolation and wear hoods when they left their cells to ensure they didn’t do so much as catch a glimpse of another inmate.

The ordeal was enough to rattle Charles Dickens. During his visit to Philadelphia in 1842, he described what he witnessed at Eastern State as “immense torture and agony” and the equivalent of being “buried alive.”

More than a century and a half later, improvements have been marginal at best.

In 1998, scandal erupted at the State Correctional Institution at Greene, a recently opened Supermax facility in western Pennsylvania. Dozens of guards were accused of abusing inmates held in the prison’s notorious F Block—known as “the hole”—and a number of guards and supervisors were fired. One who wasn’t, Charles Graner, went on to become the lead torturer at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War. He returned to his DOC job after his tour of duty, and had only recently been fired when he was sentenced in 2005 to 10 years in prison for his conduct in Iraq.

In 2013, the Department of Justice published the results of an exhaustive two-year investigation that found mentally impaired and intellectually disabled inmates were routinely subjected to conditions in restricted housing units that violated their constitutional rights.

“Living conditions in the RHU routinely involve a mix of disorienting and uncomfortable sensory experiences,” the DOJ found.

In 2015, the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators released a report on the use of restrictive housing and found that Pennsylvania ranks high on the list of jurisdictions that hold inmates in restrictive housing for more than three years, coming in third behind Texas and New York.

Under a landmark settlement reached last year between the Department of Corrections and the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, the DOC promised to make sweeping changes to its policies on solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners. But as Dr. Marsh said, it’s hard to outrun the past.

Grote says that while only a handful of inmates have ever spent as much time in solitary as Johnson, his ordeal is characteristic of the institutional inertia that can swallow human beings who get trapped in the correctional system.

“It’s hard to identify even a secret motive behind the DOC’s decision to keep Arthur Johnson in segregation,” said Grote. “This is kind of ‘business as usual’ and part of the cover-your-ass mentality that’s common in a correctional bureaucracy.”

If Johnson prevails, he will begin a step-down program to place him back in the general population. If he loses, his case will proceed to a jury trial—potentially setting the stage for a first-of-its-kind legal showdown over the constitutionality of solitary confinement.

While the Supreme Court has ruled on the legality of solitary confinement under specific circumstances, it has yet to address whether long-term segregation itself violates a prisoner’s civil rights.

In an opinion published last year, Justice Anthony Kennedy called solitary confinement a “peculiar infamy” that “exacts a terrible price” and all but invited a petitioner to compel the court to address it. The court was given that chance in June, in the case of a death row inmate in Texas who has spent 15 years in solitary confinement; but declined the opportunity.

If it were to take such a case, it couldn’t do better than that of Arthur Johnson in Pennsylvania.