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Leaving Solitary, Nearly Four Decades Later

After almost 37 years in solitary confinement, Arthur Johnson will return to the general prison population.

By Julie Morse


Arthur Johnson is serving life in prison for his role in a fatal 1970 gang fight. (Photo: Handout)

For the first time in nearly 37 years, Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson will be in direct contact with his fellow inmates.

In a monumental ruling, a Pennsylvania federal court judge announced that Johnson will return to the general prison population. Johnson, who is held at the Frackville State Correctional Institution, has spent almost 37 years living in a seven-by-12-foot cell. At 18, he was convicted of homicide and served with a life sentence with no parole. Per Judge Christopher Conner’s order, Johnson will now begin a 90-day Step Down Program—a combination of therapy and assistance—while he reintegrates into the general prison population.

The question now on many prison advocates’ minds is how exactly the Frackville State Correctional Institution will provide adequate assistance as he transitions back into the general prison community. Since 1973, Johnson has resided in various prisons throughout Pennsylvania. Following a hearing on August 11th, he was transferred to the Coal Township State Correctional Institution, where he continued to live in solitary confinement. Yesterday, Johnson’s attorneys from the Abolitionist Law Center and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections presented to Conner the details for Johnson’s Step Down Program, details of which have yet to emerge as of the time of this writing.

It’s only in the last six years that prisons across the nation began adopting Step Down Programs. In March, Jessica Pishkoexamined the newly introduced Step Down Program at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prison system for Pacific Standard. The Step Down Program aims to provide emotional assistance as inmates transition from solitary confinement to the general prison population. At CDCR, the process features rudimentary workbooks that are “filled with little drawings of faceless men and bubbles for writing down various thoughts,” and a “debriefing” stage, where an inmate disavows his gang membership and releases the names of former fellow gang members.

Johnson has spent approximately 80 percent of his prison sentence in isolation.

The terms of Johnson’s Step Down Program are still being developed, but Conner’s order demands that Johnson be provided “mental health counseling for as long as necessary.” Johnson was placed in solitary confinement in 1979, and has thus spent approximately 80 percent of his prison sentence in isolation, and has not made physical contact with another human since then.Johnson’s attorney, Bret Grote, tells Pacific Standard that solitary confinement has caused Johnson “psychological harm, cognitive harm, and emotional harm,” and that long-term isolation can “permanently alter a person’s consciousness and how they function in the world.” This was the consensus that was echoed in Conner’s ruling.

After a series ofalleged escape attempts in 1979, 1984, and 1987, Johnson, now 64 years old, was ordered to indefinite solitary confinement. Save for an hour of exercise in an outdoor cage five days a week, he has been left alone in his artificially lit cell, spared of human contact except with guards. Every time he’s returned to his cell from the exercise cage or a medical appointment, Johnson has been required to go through a strip search. Johnson claims to now suffer from anxiety, depression, memory loss, and loneliness as a result of his long-term confinement, according to court dockets.

Johnson was a member of the Black Liberation Army in the 1970s when he started going by “Cetewayo,” which means “warlike” in a Bantu language. He has been deemed “educable mentally retarded,” by the Board of Education of Philadelphia, and he dropped out of school in the third grade. Johnson has always disputed the basis of his conviction. He claims he was manipulated and coerced into signing a confession that he was unable to understand because of his intellectual disability. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, he was offered a plea deal but rejected it, asking, “How can you be remorseful for something you didn’t do?”

In Pennsylvania, no one else has spent more time in solitary confinement except for Daniel Delker, who killed a prison guard in 1973. In May, Johnson filed a federal lawsuit against the Frackville State Correctional Institution and Pennsylvania Department of Corrections on the grounds that long-term confinement violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, as well as Title 42 § 1983 of the U.S. Code under deprivation of “rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution.”

“It is difficult to conjure up a more compelling case for reintegration to the general prison population,” Conner declared last week. “After 36 years of isolation, Mr. Johnson deserves the opportunity to shake hands with someone other than his attorneys.”

Only time will tell if his prescribed Step Down Program will sufficiently support his mental and emotional well-being as he transitions into the general population. One thing is certain: After more than a generation in solitary confinement, Johnson’s re-emergence into the prison community will require the utmost care and consideration for his mental health.