On the Record: James Ridgeway on Solitary Confinement

ON THE RECORD: Can you talk a bit about what solitary confinement is and how it’s applied in places like Massachusetts?

JAMES RIDGEWAY: It is sometimes referred to as a second sentence. The judge gives the person a sentence – six years or whatever – and he gets sent to the penitentiary. When he gets into the penitentiary, he is held in some kind of transfer point at some point. Then he’s observed and he might be put into a general population – where everybody else is. Then, he might be sleeping in a dorm situation and they all eat together.

So, one day, a guard may take a dislike to him, find him with more postage stamps than he’s allowed to have. So that’s an infraction. So he sends him to solitary for having too many postage stamps. Or, in the case of another person, a man was so hungry that he ate the core of an apple – the core of an apple contains little seeds that contain arsenic in them. So that was an infraction – he violated the rules. He was sent to solitary. Now, how long they stay in solitary depends entirely on whether the warden or the corrections officer or several corrections officers decide they want to keep them there. There are no rules at all. It’s simply on the judgment on the people I just mentioned to you.

So you could end up in solitary or you could do something else that’s wrong and you could stay in solitary. A lot of people start out and think they’re going to solitary for a week, then it turns out it’s for a month, then it turns out they don’t know why they’re in solitary, and some people are in for a month, some are in for a year, and you can be in solitary for anything. And it’s not like you’ve had to done the worst thing – little things can lead to solitary. And it’s not on the basis of what a judge says – or what the warden thinks. It’s their determination, entirely their determination.

OTR: What role do you think institutions like Harvard Law School should play in addressing some of the shortcomings in the American Penal system?

JR: What I was thinking about was creating some sort of very mild system – very, very mild – where you start the idea of visitation by people who actually knew something about the law. Get every law professor to take his class or classes to a federal prison and visit it. Every so often – once or twice a year or something, it won’t take much time. Even for the people who aren’t interested and want to make a lot of money in corporate law it could be a valuable experience because of white collar stuff.

The other thing is that I think judges should make unannounced visits of prisons like the state prisons of Massachusetts. I’m sure they’re going to say that they already do that, but from the point of view of the prisoners that I have talked to, it just doesn’t happen. And it certainly doesn’t happen where students at universities do that.

OTR: What injustices do you think go unnoticed in the Massachusetts prison system?

JR: “I’ve spent a good deal of time corresponding with prisoners. Sometimes they’re in solitary, sometimes they are not. And I’ve written several things – including a long piece that got me an award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. First of all, I got to different people who were older in a couple of Massachusetts prisons to describe to me their situations. Some of them were people who were trying to make their own hospice situation – Massachusetts does not have hospices.

In one particular case, one of the prisoners was fighting dementia. He was being taken care of by another prisoner who was a combat veteran in Vietnam. It was almost like they were in the military – one guy looking after another guy.

One day, the guy with dementia, threw a bottle at a guard so he was put into medical solitary. It was like a bubble – he put this guy into a bubble, totally sealed, in a solitary unit. In this case, the guards would sit around and watch this poor guy who couldn’t use the bathroom properly, he couldn’t even open the food they gave him. Some people put cardboard over the windows so they wouldn’t have to look at him. Meanwhile, one of the former marines who used to take care of him – a guy who would take him outside, put shower him, clean him up, he was denied entry. So they basically severed relationship between these two guys.

Now these people are long timers. Some of them are murderers. Some are drug dealers, I don’t know. Anyhow, it seems to me the state of Massachusetts ought to have at the very least some form of hospice system and that’s because not only of this situation but because the jail population is getting older. So this situation is going to occur again and again and again. Now, I won a service award and I said “okay, I’m going to give this to the guys in prison.”

OTR: What of the shortcomings of the prison system in terms of dealing with prisoners with mental health issues?

JR:The whole system is weighted to put people in prison – I’ll give you an example of how this particularly works. A young guy from upstate New York who has been in institutions since he was five years old. His name is Adam Walt. He tried to kill himself going back to the age of five. When he reached the age of 18, he had already been in and out of juvenile institutions. He got locked up and sent to prison through a plea bargain for 2 to 3 years. When or got to prison, New York State had a law that supposedly prevents putting mentally ill people in solitary because putting mentally ill people in solitary makes them crazier. So what happens with this guy is that he was put into a mental health unit. But inside the mental health unit, they put him in solitary. So he tried to kill himself. He tried to electrocute himself, but it didn’t work. Then he burned his cell down.

So instead of recognizing this as a mental health problem lasting years, they put him before a prosecutor and a grand jury that indicted him on arson charges. And they appointed him a court-appointed attorney because he couldn’t afford it. He can’t read, he can’t write, and he certainly can’t understand the various complex legal documents. I read a couple of them and I couldn’t understand them. So his court appointed lawyer said he had no choice but to do a plea bargain. So he signed off and then he’s put in prison for 25 years to life. So what’s going to happen here is that he’s going to be in prison for the rest of his life. Eventually he will kill himself.

I get so mad that I started calling his lawyers up there. And they all said they can’t do anything. Eventually, through going behind the scenes, I went to his psychiatrist who had never heard of this guy and he was able to get him treatment and have him shifted to another unit.

OTR: What message would you like to communicate to individuals who are curious about how the prison industry works?

JR: The best way to find out what goes on in prison is to communicate directly with prisoners. Throughout history, everyone has said that. Instead what happen are people who study prison activities will read reports from the ACLU or some other public interest group or they’ll take testimony from a court or whatever. And they don’t really talk to prisoners. So what I would suggest is any way you could get students at university, especially law students, but not necessarily just law students, to communicate with prisons and talk to them. And if you can’t do that, get in with their families and try to write to other families and help their families. First hand. You should have firsthand knowledge of what goes on in prisons. And since prisoners are oftentimes not given any real ability to communicate with people on the outside, the only way they have to talk to what they call the free world is through letters. Old fashioned letters. So like in our case, solitary watch, we get many letters every week and we respond to the letters. Sometimes we write about the cases.

James Ridgeway is Co-Editor of Solitary Watch along with Jean Casella. SolitaryWatch.com is a website that tracks solitary confinement around the United States.

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