Johnson v. Wetzel

When this case was filed in 2016, Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson was a politicized prisoner who had been held in solitary confinement by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) since 1979.

Convicted of homicide and sentenced to life without parole in 1971 when he was 18 years old, Johnson developed a close relationship with imprisoned members of the Black Liberation Movement. He was accused of being involved in attempted escapes between 1977 and 1987, though he never got off prison grounds or escaped custody during any of the alleged attempts.

In the ensuing decades, Johnson’s disciplinary record was exemplary, with only a few misconducts for minor rule violations, and no allegations of, or actual, escape attempts since 1987. Yet as of 2016, he was still being held in solitary confinement.

On September 20, 2016,  Chief Judge Christopher Conner of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted a preliminary injunction ordering the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to begin a “step-down” program to return Johnson to the general prison population.

In reaching his decision, Judge Conner stated: “For the past thirty-six years, the Department has held Mr. Johnson in solitary confinement—his entire existence restricted, for at least twenty three hours per day, to an area smaller than the average horse stall. Astoundingly, Mr. Johnson continues to endure this compounding punishment, despite the complete absence of major disciplinary infractions for more than a quarter century.”

Judge Conner continued: “When he entered Department custody in August 1973, Mr. Johnson was [twenty-one] years old, and his life expectancy was forty-four more years. He has now served over eighty percent of that life expectancy in solitary confinement. The government’s proffered reason for Mr. Johnson’s continued exile—that he is an ‘escape risk’—is unpersuasive and substantially outweighed by the compelling facts presented in support of preliminary injunctive relief. Indeed, it is difficult to conjure up a more compelling case for reintegration to the general prison population. After thirty-six years of isolation, Mr. Johnson deserves the opportunity to shake hands with someone other than his attorneys.”

Case Timeline

05/12/16: Complaint Filed

09/20/16: Preliminary Injunction Granted

09/20/16: Preliminary Injunction Granted Cancel