There may be no journalist in America who has collected more stories from prisoners in solitary confinement.
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.
He began his journalism career more than fifty years ago, and for thirty years he was the Washington correspondent for the Village Voice. (We were colleagues there for about a decade.) Mother Jones once called him “one of the legends of modern muckraking.” By now, he has written so many books that he’s lost count. “Sixteen or seventeen,” he said. It’s actually eighteen, and next week will bring the tally to nineteen. “Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement,” which he co-edited with Casella and Sarah Shourd (who was held in solitary confinement in Iran for four hundred and ten days), will be released on February 2nd.
Many of the book’s stories are culled from the Web site, which publishes original news reporting as well as firsthand accounts of solitary confinement. The site gets about two thousand visitors a day, but one story drew six hundred thousand views. It was written by a New York prisoner named William Blake, who had then been held in solitary for nearly twenty-six years. Describing a solitary-confinement unit—which in New York is known as a “Special Housing Unit” (or “SHU”) or just “the box”—Blake wrote:
The box is a place like no other place on planet Earth. It’s a place where men full of rage can stand at their cell gates fulminating on their neighbor or neighbors, yelling and screaming and speaking some of the filthiest words that could ever come from a human mouth, do it for hours on end, and despite it all never suffer the loss of a single tooth, never get his head knocked clean off his shoulders. You will never hear words more despicable or see mouth wars more insane than what occurs all the time in SHU, not anywhere else in the world.… Day and night I have been awakened to the sound of the rage being loosed loudly on SHU gates, and I’d be a liar if I said I haven’t at times been one of the madmen doing the yelling.
Meanwhile, letters from solitary-confinement prisoners continue to fill Ridgeway’s postal box. In a 2014 article in CounterPunch, he explained:
There are so many letters now that I cannot possibly reply to most of them, even with a couple of volunteers to help. So I buy packages of cards, and gather up all the ones sent to me for free by wildlife groups as thank-you gifts for donations. I start sending people in solitary pictures of polar bears and endangered gray wolves, with just a few handwritten words: “Thanks for your letter. Stay strong.” They write back with a level of gratitude totally disproportionate to my lame missives.
As the volume of letters coming in has grown, so have the descriptions of prisoners’ psychological torment. About one prisoner, Ridgeway recalled, “This guy would write me: ‘I tried to kill myself with the electric light socket, but couldn’t do it. I’m now testing to see if I’m going to slit my wrists.’ ” (Ridgeway made several phone calls, and, he said, somebody moved the man out of solitary and into a psychiatric hospital for prisoners.) “I feel so bad for some of these guys,” he said, “because they really do seem like potential suicides. Those people—I just promise them that I will read their letters and respond.”
Ridgeway will turn eighty this year. Lately, his eyesight has been weakening, making it much harder for him to read and file all the letters that sit in piles atop his desk. “I have so many right now I can’t face them,” he said. But he has no plans to stop. “Most of these guys I write to, all they want is to reach out and have a human hand,” he said. “I used to think they wanted their cases dealt with, but all they really want is just to have some sort of correspondence, some kind of contact with the outside world.”