The world of justice journalism has lost a pioneering investigative voice.
James Ridgeway, a prizewinning investigative journalist and author of 19 books, who was once described as one of the “legends of modern muckraking,” died Saturday in Washington, D.C. at 84.
Ridgeway’s career spanned over a half-century of hard-hitting stories on subjects ranging from corporate environmental polluters and white nationalist extremists to the questionable financial practices of American universities.
But in the past decade, he focused his attention on the indignities and injustices of the corrections system―and more specifically, the use of solitary confinement.
“Supermax prisons and solitary confinement units are our domestic black sites—hidden places where human beings endure unspeakable punishments, without benefit of due process in any court of law,” he wrote in a 2018 essay for the Columbia Journalism Review.
Ridgeway’s professional resume as a journalist spanned some of the world’s most renowned publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Observer, The Guardian, The New Republic and The Village Voice.
But alerting the public to what he perceived as the injustices of America’s mass incarceration system became the driving passion of the final decade of his career.
A longtime associate of The Crime Report, he received a 2010 PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), along with his colleague Jean Casella, for their Feb 18, 2010 TCR article “Locking Down the Mentally Ill.”
The Ridgeway-Casella article was one of only two online entries to win the nationwide honor.
A year earlier, he launched the pathbreaking website Solitary Watch with Casella in an effort to drive attention to what he believed was a failure on the part of the national media to report adequately on the plight of thousands of adults and juveniles confined to solitary cells in a system advocates described as a modern version of torture.
In a prison system that is virtually closed to journalists, Ridgeway found a unique way to tell their stories, by using inmates themselves as reporters.
“Of course, that’s taboo in the mainstream press,” he once joked to The New Yorker’s Jennifer Gonnerman. “We all know they’re liars and double dealers and escape artists….(but) my position was: all we want to do here is, we want to know what is going on inside.”
The strategy produced “Hell Is a Very Small Place,” a gripping collection of essays published in 2018 by individuals who were confined to administrative segregation, edited by Ridgeway, Casella and Sarah Shourd.
The essays, accompanied by research and analysis from correctional and medical experts, attracted glowing reviews, including an endorsement from then-President Barack Obama.
“Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for twenty-three hours a day for months, sometime for years at a time?” Obama wrote. “That is not going to make us safer. It’s not going to make us stronger.”
Reviewers said the anthology amounted to a wake-up call.
“It is difficult to read this book without feeling shame,” wrote Martin Garbus in The New York Review of Books.
Ridgeway’s polemical approach to journalism evoked the muckraking work of 19th-century and early 20th-century reporters like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens―and served as a bridge to a new generation of investigative reporters working online.
In the modern media landscape, littered with corporate buyouts and diminishing newsrooms, he still remains an inspiration.
“We did our reporting in a way that most people in the press would die for,” he once wrote in Mother Jones, recalling his work for The Voice.
“Nobody censored what we wrote. Nobody messed with how things were written, or dreamed of questioning a political opinion.”
For a fuller description of Ridgeway’s career and achievements, see the obituary in The New York Times.
Stephen Handelman is executive editor of The Crime Report.