Jennifer Gonnerman, New Yorker - Prison officials rarely allow journalists to walk through their prisons, and even rarer is the warden who lets a reporter into his solitary-confinement unit. The voices of the men and women confined inside these prisons-within-a-prison are often the last ones that any prison administrator wants outsiders to hear. But the potential power of these prisoners’ stories to draw public attention—and propel politicians to act—was on display earlier this week, when President Obama announced a plan to decrease the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. Obama cited the story of a young man named Kalief Browder, who spent nearly two years in solitary confinement on Rikers Island without having been convicted of a crime.
I wrote about Browder for this magazine in the fall of 2014, but there may be no reporter in the United States who has collected more stories of solitary-confinement prisoners than the veteran investigative reporter James Ridgeway. Since it is virtually impossible for a reporter to gain access to a solitary-confinement unit, Ridgeway came up with another strategy. “I wanted to use the prisoners themselves as reporters,” he told me. “Of course, that’s taboo in the mainstream press, since we all know they’re liars and double dealers and escape artists.” He chuckled. But breaking that taboo “didn’t bother me at all,” he said. “My position was: all we want to do here is, we want to know what is going on inside.”
Each week, Ridgeway leaves his home in Washington, D.C., walks to his local post office, and returns with about fifty letters from men and women locked in solitary-confinement units in prisons around the country. The letters began arriving in 2010, soon after Ridgeway launched a Web site, called Solitary Watch, with an editor named Jean Casella. “When we started, there was nobody writing about this,” she said. Ridgeway was then seventy-three years old. He dug into his retirement fund to help cover startup costs, and now, when he goes to the post office each week, he pushes a walker.
Jim Ridgeway was a contributing correspondent to the Progressive Review for three decades