Ridgeway on America’s Solitary Confinement Nightmare
He always wanted to be an insider.
But it never worked out.
His DNA wouldn't allow it.
He was always an outsider.
Always taking the side of the less powerful.
As a student at Princeton in the 1950s, James Ridgeway worked on the student newspaper to expose the elitism and racism at the university's eating club system.
As a reporter at The New Republic in the 1960s, he exposed General Motors for spying on his friend Ralph Nader.
He then exposed corporate connections to America's university in his classic book -- The Closed Corporation: American Universities in Crisis (Ballantine Books, 1970)
And now, he says he is working to expose President Obama's lie that "America doesn't torture."
Of course we torture, Ridgeway says.
Right here in America.
In our own prisons.
An estimated 80,000 Americans are in solitary confinement.
Some have been in for decades.
Some are brutally beaten and restrained, even killed.
Others succumb to madness and kill themselves.
But to most people, they remain invisible.
James Ridgeway started a web site called solitarywatch.com to find out more.
And to bring light to what he considers to be a disgrace to the nation.
"Obama says we don't torture," Ridgeway told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. "Let me tell you something. That's absolute bullshit. We're torturing right in the President's backyard -- all over the place."
"This is a long haul," Ridgeway said. "It's an uphill battle to draw attention to a situation where there are many cases that amount to torture."
"These little prisoners' rights groups have to have support. The larger human rights groups and criminal justice reform groups have to take on the issue of solitary confinement more directly. And there has to be more publicity about what is going on."
Ridgeway is working with David Bruck, a death penalty lawyer and a professor at Washington & Lee Law School in Lexington, Virginia.
Together they are trying to set up a database that will provide some of the basic facts on solitary confinement.
Like how many prisoners are in solitary.
Like how do prison officials decide who gets put in the hole.
"It could be done at the whim of a warden or even a prison guard," Ridgeway said. "After the person is convicted and sentenced, he kind of disappears. He goes into this prison."
"And the warden, depending on reports of the guards, can put the prisoner in one kind of solitary or another. He can keep the prisoner there for as long as the warden deems necessary."
"There's supposed to be due process, hearings to decide if they should be punished for some reported violation of the rules. But in most states, the people who run the hearings are prison officials, so of course the prisoners are always found guilty."
Horror stories abound. The Angola 3 -- three African Americans in the infamous Angola state prison in Louisiana -- have been in solitary for 37 years.
"These were three men charged with the killing of a prison guard in the early 1970s. They were convicted. But there were some open questions. The convictions are kind of dubious. They contend that they were targeted because they were Black Panthers, organizing against prison conditions."
"The most incredible thing was that these three guys -- they have been locked in solitary confinement for 37 years."
Has Ridgeway interviewed them?
"I wanted to go down and visit and talk with them and talk with the warden. But I had written one article which quoted the warden's deposition. And it made the warden look questionable."
"The warden -- Burl Cain -- is highly regarded by the press in the United States for running an open prison that anyone can go in and look around."
Except for Ridgeway. The prison banned him.
"I can't visit the prison. I can't talk to the prisoners. And I can't talk with Burl Cain."
"After reading these depositions about what happened to these guys in Angola and how they had put in solitary, I began reading about other cases where people were in solitary."
"Attorneys told me that if I thought the Angola 3 was a bad situation, there were many, many other cases where people were in for 15 years or 20 years in solitary. And this was very prevalent. And it was a kind of torture."
"That's when I started Solitary Watch, together with Jean Casella, who is a writer and editor."
"Our partner in the project is David Bruck, who runs the death penalty clinic at Washington & Lee University Law School. They recognize that this is a major issue in U.S. criminal justice."
Ridgeway also came across the case of two African American sisters in Mississippi -- Gladys and Jamie Scott -- who were convicted of a $12 robbery.
"Neither of them had a previous record. And there is evidence of coerced confessions. These two women were in rural Mississippi. They were arrested and charged with a $12 armed robbery. The circumstances were all questionable. One witness signed a statement that was written for him without reading it."
"They were teenaged boys. And they were allegedly threatened by the sheriff that they would be sent to a male prison where they would become bitches -- they would be raped -- unless they turned on the two women. They dreaded that. So, they would sign anything to get out of that."
"So, these two women were charged and convicted based on this testimony. No one was hurt in this robbery. There was a gun involved. But it was always a question as to who was holding the gun and who was doing what with the gun. But nobody was hurt."
The judge sentenced them to two consecutive life sentences each.
Jamie Scott has described -- through a paralegal - an ugly situation in the prison - where inmates have died of second rate medical care, of sewage seeping on the floors, of raining inside when it rains outside, of the resulting mold build up, and of spiders.
"Those conditions aren't unusual, especially in solitary confinement," Ridgeway says. "There are people who say that solitary is becoming a mental institution. And people who aren't mentally ill when they go into solitary go mad inside."
"They start hollering and screaming -- and then, of course, they just keep them in solitary indefinitely. They go mad in solitary. To me, that's the proof that it's a form of torture."
As for Jamie Scott, she has kidney disease, Ridgeway says.
"She has collapsed several times in her cell. And she was put in a prison infirmary. She needed dialysis. They wouldn't send her to a hospital. They would bring in a dialysis truck. They put a stent in her arm to pump the blood in and out. And it became repeatedly infected. Sometimes the machines broke down in the middle of the dialysis."
"And she eventually became so sick that she was sent to the hospital. They straightened her out and sent her back to prison. But she continued to get sick. She was sent back to the hospital. They finally put a stent in her groin and managed to keep her alive."
"At one point, the doctor said he wasn't going to release her from the hospital, because she was going to die. I don't know what happened, but she ended up back in the prison, where she is now."
"There has been an effort by the family, by the mother, and by a paralegal named Nancy Lockhart, to try and get this woman out of jail. The Governor has no interest."
"So, there she sits in this situation where she appears to have not only serious kidney disease, but maybe end stage renal disease."
"According to one story, which apparently the prison denies, the sister Gladys offered to give her a kidney and the prison refused to consider that."
Ridgeway has reported on the case of an inmate at the Red Onion state prison in Wise County, Virginia.
"There is a case in Virginia of a guy who was spared the death penalty. Instead, he was sent to solitary for life. He has begged the judge to put him to death. He said he can't stand it anymore. His name is Joseph Armstrong. He's at Red Onion State prison in Virginia -- one of the worst in Virginia."
Ridgeway is not advocating for the elimination of solitary.
But he does want to severely restrict it.
"There may be cases where for safety reasons and other reasons, people need to be by themselves for a period of time," Ridgeway says.
"But not 37 years. And not 20 years. Not for 15 years. Not for a year. And not at all, under the kind of arbitrary, corrupt system we have now. Maybe for a short period of observation, but nothing more."
"There was one recent case where a woman was thrown into solitary for reporting that she was raped by a guard."
"Another where a dozen Rastafarians have been in solitary for 10 years because they refuse to cut their dreadlocks."
"In a lot of states, the response to a prisoner being suicidal is to place him in solitary -- which drives sane people to suicide."
"As one guy who's a prisoner in Tamms in Illinois said, ‘Lock yourself in the bathroom for ten years, and see if it makes you go crazy.'"
"In one jail in Louisiana, they have been putting suicidal prisoners in 3 by 3 foot cages, and leaving them there sometimes for weeks."
"These things are going on all the time."
"We have a blog on Solitary Watch and we have no shortage of things to post on it - - there's a new story just about every day, one more outrageous than the next."
"There are thousands prisoners suffering from mental illness who are put in solitary because they aren't treated and can't be controlled. Solitary confinement cells have become the new asylums. Children in adult prisons end up in solitary ‘for their own protection.' The system is totally out of control."
[For a complete transcript of the Interview with James Ridgeway, see 24 Corporate Crime Reporter 32(10), August 9, 2010, print edition only.]