In 2019, a group of journalists received grants from the Solitary Confinement Reporting Project, which was funded by the Vital Projects Fund and administered by Solitary Watch. The grants supported projects in a variety of media that examined the use of solitary confinement across the U.S. carceral landscape, from prisons and jails to immigrant detention facilities. The recipients ranged from award-winning veteran journalists to emerging young reporters, and included six incarcerated writers as well as one recently released from prison.
The journalists who had experienced solitary firsthand reported on previously untouched subjects—from the Kafkaesque scene of a “review hearing” where people are condemned to remain in solitary; to the underground economies that endure in a world of extreme isolation and deprivation; to the ways in which prison rules and punishments serve to undermine, rather than maintain, safety and order.
The projects were chosen from dozens of submissions by the team of Wilbert Rideau, a renowned prison journalist who edited The Angolite and received the George Polk, Sidney Hillman, and Robert F. Kennedy Awards, and James Ridgeway (1936-2021), an investigative reporter for 60 years who founded and co-director of Solitary Watch.
Ridgeway described why support for independent reporting is especially important when it comes to solitary confinement: “The tens of thousands of people in this country who live in small concrete cages, many for months and years, are shut off from the outside world.” he said. “Stories of the brutality and misery that is solitary confinement have finally begun to emerge, but we still have a long way to go to fully inform and engage the American public on this subject.”
Rideau, who entered the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola at the age of 19 and was released 44 years later as an award-winning journalist, 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 on solitary confinement, our most extreme and cruel punishment—not scholars, not outside reporters, and not prison authorities. The voice of the experienced is absolutely necessary.”
David Menschel, who directs the Vital Projects Fund, which provided the funding for the grants, said: “For more than a century we have known that solitary confinement is torturous. It is only because it’s hidden from public view and done to human beings we see as less than human that we countenance such hideous immorality done in our name. Vital Projects Fund is proud to support these grants that seek to lance the boil of solitary confinement and expose it to the light and air of human conscience.”
For the two years following distribution of the grants, Solitary Watch staff worked with recipients to help shape, edit, and place the stories in a variety of publications—especially essential for journalists working from the inside. Links to the grant-funded stories can be found below.
• Roshan Abraham, “In New York, Few Resources for Solitary Confinement Survivors After Prison,” City Limits
• Matthew Azzano, “Inside the Underground Economy of Solitary Confinement,” The Marshall Project
• Jeremiah Bourgeois, “Digging Our Way Out of the Hole: The Safe Alternative to Solitary,” The Crime Report
• Renée Feltz, “Hunger for Justice: Immigrant Detainees Are Being Punished for Refusing to Eat,” The Progressive
• Susan Greene, “GEO-run Aurora ICE Detention Center Is Isolating Immigrants—Some Mentally Ill—in Prolonged Solitary Confinement,” The Colorado Independent
• Juan Moreno Haines, “In San Quentin Prison, Getting the Flu Can Land You in Solitary Confinement,” The Appeal
• Kenneth Hartman, “Inside the Hole: The Experience of Solitary Confinement in California,” Solitary Watch
• Elizabeth Hawes, “Incarcerated Women Are Punished for Their Trauma With Solitary Confinement,” Truthout
• Arthur Longworth, “How to Survive Supermax,” The New Republic
• Thomas Whitaker, “We Burn, You Burn,” Guernica (forthcoming)
In 2022, Solitary Watch will solicit and award another round of grants exclusively to incarcerated journalists. The grant program will be named for our late founder and co-director, James Ridgeway, and recipients will be selected by Juan Moreno Haines, Senior Editor at the San Quentin News and a Senior Contributing Writer at Solitary Watch. Check back in June for more details.
To make a donation to the James Ridgeway Memorial Fund for Incarcerated Journalists, please click here.