By Ollie Gratzinger | Staff Columnist
It’s no secret that prisons in the United States are in need of serious reform.
It may be the horror stories that emerge from behind the concrete walls that keep civilians mostly in check, but a system that perpetuates fear of punishment is bound to reach a point at which it punishes too severely. The Department of Corrections (DOC) is almost notorious for squeezing the humanity out of an inmate so that they become a prisoner, not a person. A number, not a name.
One such case is that of Arthur Johnson. At 63, Johnson has spent almost 37 years in not only prison but in solitary confinement.
At the State Correctional Institution Frackville in Pennsylvania, Johnson has been on what the prison calls “restricted release” following the murder of a man during a street fight. “Restricted release” means nothing if not a honeyed term for the cruel and unusual punishment that is social deprivation.
Last Tuesday brought with it the ruling that Johnson is to be reintegrated into the prison’s general population, and a detailed plan of action for doing just that is due to be submitted by Sept. 28. There’s no doubt, though, that his time spent alone will have dire consequences on his ability to cope with communal living.
According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Johnson’s IQ is, at highest, around 70. His cell is smaller than a double dorm room here at Duquesne, and he only leaves the 7-by-12-foot space to shower three times a week. He eats only through a slot in the door.
If you’ve got a hard time imagining what it must be like to be so confined for so long, you’re not the only one. We as people are not hard-wired for seclusion. It’s natural to crave social stimulation. Even the most introverted of us might visit a few close friends or at least have a pet to keep us company when we’re home alone.
Imagine this, though: You’re locked in your small, windowless dorm for at least 23 hours per day. There’s nothing there to pass the time or kill the boredom that will eventually set in. You’re never allowed to leave, except for when your RA comes to escort you to and from the bathroom. There are days when they’ll bring you outside, but there won’t be any trees, flowers or freedom. There’s just a small, concrete slab surrounded by a fence too tall to climb. Imagine things being just like that for ten years, then twenty, then thirty, time ticking on with no end in sight. You haven’t seen your family or friends in decades. You don’t know how they’re doing, and you don’t know when — or if — you’ll see them again. Maybe that’s what it feels like to be Arthur Johnson.
In a declaration that’s part of a lawsuit against six DOC officials, Johnson said that, beyond the necessary contact with prison staff, he has not touched another human since 1979. He also claims that since his imprisonment, which began when he was 27, he’s lost his capacity to feel emotions as strongly as he once could, as well as his ability to empathize with others.
“It’s crazy,” said freshman Adriana Gulli. “It doesn’t make sense. Why would they do that to a person? Solitary confinement isn’t meant to be that long. It’s dehumanizing, really. They’re treating him like they’d treat and object. I know the system is messed up, but 37 years? That’s extreme.”
Freshman Logan Bungard brings up another question that highlights a very specific flaw within the judicial system: How is an inmate’s mental health affected in the long run?
“He wants to get out of solitary confinement, and that’s understandable,” Bungard said. “But after so long, how would he function in society? His social skills must be gone by now.”
Freshman Abby Wright elaborated further on the topic, claiming that solitary confinement usually isn’t the right answer.
“He should be treated as a psych patient and given mental help if he needs it,” Wright said. “Besides, other people have committed the same crimes — some have even done worse things — and yet they received lighter, less inhumane sentences. Solitary confinement is a convenience for the guards. It’s sick that convenience takes precedence over the health and wellbeing of a person.”
It’s often stories such as Johnson’s that inspire silence among the masses. Speechlessness is our knee-jerk reaction to something so inconceivable. What can we say when words tend to fail? It’s then, in the shadows of our shock, that silence turns to an outcry for justice.
It isn’t a question of whether or not America’s prisons are in need of serious reform. From Johnson’s case and others like it, we know that they are. Instead, it’s a question of whether or not our opinions are in need of the same revamping. It’s a question of what broad ideas like life, freedom, second chances and human rights mean to each of us. It’s a question of what we, as the next generations of citizens and activists, can do to ensure that nothing like the case of Arthur Johnson can ever happen again.