There may be no reporter in the U.S. who has collected more stories of solitary-confinement prisoners than James Ridgeway. “I wanted to use the prisoners themselves as reporters,” he tells the New Yorker. “Of course, that's taboo in the mainstream press, since we all know they're liars and double dealers and escape artists … my position was all we want to do here is, we want to know what is going on inside.” Each week, Ridgeway gets fifty letters from men and women locked in solitary-confinement units in prisons. The letters began arriving in 2010 after he launched a Web site called Solitary Watch with editor 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.
For thirty years, he was the Washington correspondent for the Village Voice. He is about to publish his nineteenth book, “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). Many of the book's stories are culled from the website, 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,” 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.”