Ridgeway Reporting Project Awards Grants to Incarcerated Journalists to Report on U.S. Prison Conditions

by | June 22, 2023

Today we issued the following press release. We are grateful for the generosity of the Vital Projects Fund and of readers like you, who make it possible for us to support the work of incarcerated journalists. We also are grateful for the courage and tenacity of these 16 individuals, who must overcome myriad obstacles and risks to carry out investigative reporting behind bars. Finally, we are grateful to be able to contribute to the legacy of our late founder, James Ridgeway, for whom the Ridgeway Reporting Project is named.

WASHINGTON, DC, JUNE 22, 2023—Solitary Watch today announced the recipients of 16 grants awarded by the Ridgeway Reporting Project for Incarcerated Journalists. 

The grants program, which is funded by the Vital Projects Fund, will support 16 projects that expose prison policies and practices from the inside out, exploring their impact on incarcerated people, the criminal legal system, and the larger society that permits and pays for them.

The journalists, who have experienced firsthand the realities of prison abuse, solitary confinement, inadequate medical and mental health care, environmental contamination, and the “slave wages” paid in prison, will report on these topics and others 

The 16 projects were chosen from more than 60 submissions by incarcerated journalist Juan Moreno Haines, a Senior Writer and Editor for both Solitary Watch and the San Quentin News, in collaboration with Solitary Watch’s Jean Casella and Katie Rose Quandt. 

Haines, whose work has been published by the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and the UCLA Law Review, among others, received a Writing for Justice fellowship from PEN American Center and a Silver Heart Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for being “a voice for the voiceless.” 

“The goal of the Ridgeway Reporting Project is to give voice to incarcerated people, who are uniquely positioned to show where certain prison policies are failing our society,” said Haines. “The RRP turns up the volume of these brave, yet vulnerable voices. Listening to them will help us take the next steps toward change.”

In addition to funding, the Ridgeway Reporting Project will provide assistance to incarcerated journalists in shaping their stories, conducting research, and placing their work with publications. In addition to Solitary Watch staff, assistance will be provided by staff and volunteers of Empowerment Avenue, an organization that builds inside-outside partnerships with incarcerated journalists and artists.

Solitary Watch, which administers the grant program, is a nonprofit watchdog organization that works to uncover the truth about solitary confinement and other harsh prison conditions in the United States by producing high-quality investigative journalism, accurate information, and authentic storytelling from both sides of prison walls. Over the past 13 years, Solitary Watch has generated public debate and informed policy change on an underreported humanitarian crisis by promoting awareness, creating accountability, and shifting narratives.”

“While it contains more than two million people—a population larger than all but four U.S. cities—the American carceral system has been kept largely off-limits to the public and the press,” said Solitary Watch Director Jean Casella. “Barbaric and unconstitutional living conditions, deadly neglect, and routine brutality are widespread, yet receive minimal attention. Solitary confinement, which functions as a prison within a prison, has been particularly difficult to access. The Ridgeway Reporting Project aims to expose this world from the inside out.

The Ridgeway Reporting Project honors the late James Ridgeway (1936-2021). After a 50-year career as an investigative journalist, Ridgeway founded Solitary Watch, and devoted the final decade of his life to exposing inhumane prison conditions. He was a pioneer in his commitment to incarcerated journalists. 

A previous round of the project, then called the Solitary Confinement Reporting Project, supported a dozen reporters selected by Ridgeway and renowned prison journalist Wilbert Rideau. At the time, Rideau explained the fundamental need to support reporting that originates behind bars: “No matter how knowledgeable one is about the institution of prison, it is only the incarcerated or formerly imprisoned journalist who can take the public into the very heart of the prison experience,” he said. “No one else can provide this vital perspective—not scholars, not outside reporters, and not prison authorities. The voice of the experienced is absolutely necessary.”

2023 Ridgeway Reporting Project Grant Recipients

  • Christopher Blackwell will report on how Victim Services is being misused to block the free expression of incarcerated voices in Washington State prisons. 
  • William Blake, in collaboration with Val Kiebala, will write about suicides in solitary in New York State prisons, emphasizing their impact on other incarcerated people. 
  • Nicholas Brooks will explore how the “slave wages” paid to individuals in New York’s prisons lead to rule-breaking and solitary confinement, as incarcerated people struggle to provide for their basic needs. 
  • Steve Brooks will document how California’s drought conditions are affecting incarcerated people, and how water shortages are being handled by the state’s prison system.
  • Jeremy Busby will investigate a Texas prison’s use of telephone-booth-sized holding cages to house suicidal individuals, and the lack of oversight that allows such practices to take place.
  • Brittney Gulley will document the treatment of transgender men in Texas women’s prisons, based on his own experience and interviews with others.
  • Kwaneta Harris will report on the “adolescent-to-adult sexual violence pipeline” experienced by women and girls in Texas carceral facilities.
  • Elizabeth Hawes will write about forced strip searches and public urination for drug tests in a Minnesota women’s prison, and the use of solitary to punish non-compliance. 
  • Sara Kielly will look at changes made in New York’s largest women’s prison since the passage of the HALT Solitary Confinement Law, as well as resistance to its implementation. 
  • Abraham Santiago, in collaboration with Ellyn Santiago, will write about the failures of prison healthcare in Connecticut, from the viewpoint of an incarcerated Certified Nursing Assistant.
  • Kevin Sawyer will draw on public records requests to investigate the fate of California’s “seven-up lifers,” who have been permanently trapped in prison by politics. 
  • Felix Sitthivong will report on new policies in the Washington state prison system that undermine cultural awareness groups, which have historically challenged racism, discrimination, and inhumane conditions. 
  • J. Strange will write about the collateral consequences of poor food quality in fueling the high rate of diabetes in San Quentin State Prison and in threatening the health and well-being of every incarcerated Californian.
  • Kenneth “Swift Justice” Traywick, in collaboration with Lauren Faraino, will document the reality of forced labor in Alabama prisons and retaliation against incarcerated people who resist it, against the background of a 2022 statewide vote banning slavery in Alabama.
  • Thomas Whitaker, writing from solitary confinement, will report on the religion-based courses that are the only in-cell programs available to people in solitary in Texas.

This round of grants to incarcerated journalists is made possible by a generous grant from the Vital Projects Fund. To support our broader work with incarcerated writers, please consider a donation to the James Ridgeway Memorial Fund by visiting our donation page and designating your donation for the Ridgeway Fund.


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