James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway

In 1965, James Ridgeway helped launch the modern muckraking era by revealing that General Motors had hired private eyes to spy on an obscure consumer advocate named Ralph Nader. He worked for many years at the Village Voice, has written 16 books, and has codirected Blood in the Face, a film about the far right. In 2012, he was named a Soros Justice Media Fellow.

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Soylent Greenbacks: David Brooks Wants People to Die for Debt Reduction

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 12:47 PM PDT
He looks delicious.

To help solve the debt crisis, the best thing I can do is die. Maybe not right now, but certainly before I put too much strain on the public purse—and since I'm 74, that means pretty soon. If I should be lucky enough to contract a fatal disease, I can do the right thing by eschewing expensive medical care that might extend my life. If that doesn’t happen, and I enter a slow and costly decline, then in the interests of the greater good I should take the Hemingway solution.

That's pretty much the message of David Brooks' column in today’s New York Times. "This fiscal crisis is about many things," he writes, "but one of them is our  inability to face death—our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy to extend life for a few more sickly months."

Here's how Brooks comes by his position: To begin with, he says: "The fiscal crisis is driven largely by health care costs." Never mind two futile wars and 10 years of tax relief for millionaires.

Furthermore, he argues, the reason for these soaring costs is that very old and very sick people insist on clinging on to their miserable lives, when they ought to be civic-minded enough to kick off. It's not the insurance companies, which reap huge profits by serving as useless, greed-driven middlemen. It's not the drug companies, which are making out like bandits with virtually no government regulation. It's not the whole corrupt, overpriced system of medicine for profit, which delivers the 37th best health care in the world, according to the WHO, at more than twice the cost of the best (France). No. It's all about us greedy geezers. We're the ones who are placing an untenable burden on the younger, heartier citizenry, with our selfish desire to live a little longer.

Languishing in Solitary, Pelican Bay Inmates Launch Hunger Strike

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 1:00 PM PDT
The X-shaped building cluster is Pelican Bay's special housing unit.

As Americans gear up to celebrate Independence Day, several dozen inmates languishing in solitary confinement at California's Pelican Bay State Prison are standing up for their rights the only way they can think of—by refusing to eat. The prisoners, who are being held in long-term or sometimes permanent isolation, launched a hunger strike Friday and have sworn to continue it until prison authorities improve conditions in Pelican Bay's special housing unit (SHU).

Built in 1989, Pelican Bay is the nation's first supermax prison built for that purpose, and remains one of its most notorious. About a third of its roughly 3,100 inmates live in the X-shaped cluster of buildings known as the SHU. NPR's Laura Sullivan, one of few reporters granted entry to Pelican Bay, described the unit in a 2006 report:

Everything is gray concrete: the bed, the walls, the unmovable stool. Everything except the combination stainless-steel sink and toilet. You can't move more than eight feet in one direction...The cell is one of eight in a long hallway. From inside, you can't see anyone or any of the other cells. This is where the inmate eats, sleeps and exists for 22 1/2 hours a day. He spends the other 1 1/2 hours alone in a small concrete yard...Twice a day, officers push plastic food trays through the small portals in the metal doors...

Those doors are solid metal, with little nickel-sized holes punched throughout. One inmate known as Wino is standing just behind the door of his cell. It's difficult to make eye contact, because you can only see one eye at a time. "The only contact that you have with individuals is what they call a pinky shake," he says, sticking his pinky through one of the little holes in the door. That's the only personal contact Wino has had in six years.

When conditions at Pelican Bay were challenged in a 1995 lawsuit, the judge in the case found that life in the SHU "may press the outer borders of what most humans can psychologically tolerate," while placing mentally ill or psychologically vulnerable people in such conditions "is the equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe." Yet since that time, the number of inmates in the SHU has grown, and their sentences have lengthened from months to years to decades. Hugo Pinell, a former associate of George Jackson who is considered by some a political prisoner, has been in Pelican Bay's SHU for more than 20 years.

Kids Put in Solitary Confinement in California's Juvie Jails

| Thu Jun. 16, 2011 2:48 PM PDT

Based on findings by the state’s own court-appointed overseers, California Watch reports that "Juvenile inmates at California correctional facilities have been held in isolation nearly 24 hours straight on hundreds of occasions this year, in violation of state regulations."

An audit by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in March found multiple facilities operated by the Division of Juvenile Justice kept youth prisoners deemed a threat in their cells for all but 40 minutes a day. Auditors found Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles, to be the worst offender.

The juveniles placed on "temporary detention" or "temporary intervention plans" can be placed in solitary confinement for 21 hours a day.

Youth facilities exceeded that limit 249 times from January through April, according to numbers provided to Nancy Campbell, who is appointed by the state courts to oversee the juvenile facilities.

Keep in mind that California’s regulations actually permit juvenile prisoners to be isolated 21 out of 24 hours, yet the state’s facilities cannot manage to get teens out of their cells or rooms for even three hours a day. This despite the fact that a 2000 report by California’s Inspector General found that keeping juveniles in prolonged isolation can have a "profound" impact on their well-being. The problem, according to the audit, reflects the crisis in California’s adult prisons, as recently addressed by the Supreme Court: there are simply too many kids in juvie, with too few staff and resources to deal with them humanely.

Doctors Prescribe Cure for "Epidemic of Mass Incarceration"

| Thu Jun. 9, 2011 8:46 AM PDT

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to significantly reduce the number of inmates in its state prisons, where conditions are so horrendous that the violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In an article just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, physician researchers from the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, run by Brown University and Providence's Miriam Hospital and Brown University suggest a straightforward cure for what they call the "epidemic of mass incarceration" that has swept the country in recent decades: Stop using prisons and jails as holding facilities for people with mental illness and drug addiction—who account for a full half of today's prison population—and get them proper treatment instead.

Some 2.3 million Americans—1 in 100 adults—is now in prison at any given time, with an estimated 10 million cycling in and out of prisons and jails each year. The numbers have increased more than 600 percent in the past 40 years. According to the article:

Much of the increase in the prisoner census is a result of the "War on Drugs" and our country's failure to treat addiction and mental illness as medical conditions. The natural history of these diseases often leads to behaviors that result in incarceration. The medical profession has the chance both to advocate for changes in the criminal justice system to reduce the number of people behind bars who would be better served in community-based treatment and to capitalize on the tremendous public health opportunities for diagnosing and treating disease and for linking patients to care after release.

Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill over the past 50 years and severe punishment for drug users starting in the 1970s have shifted the burden of care for addiction and mental illness to jails and prisons. The largest facilities housing psychiatric patients in the United States are not hospitals but jails. More than half of inmates have symptoms of a psychiatric disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), and major depression and psychotic disorders are four to eight times as prevalent among inmates as in the general population — yet only 22% of state prisoners and 7% of jail inmates receive mental health treatment while incarcerated.

Instead, prisoners are subject to conditions—including solitary confinement—that exacerbate, rather than address, their mental health problems. This is because "correctional facilities are fundamentally designed to confine and punish, not to treat disease," the article continues. "The harsh and socially isolating conditions in jail or prison often exacerbate mental illness, especially when inmates are placed under solitary confinement, as is common in the 'super maximum' facilities that have proliferated extensively in recent years."

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