Reading Resolution: “Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement” edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway and Sarah Shourd

1. A book written in North America: Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway and Sarah Shourd

List Progress: 9/30

Trigger warning: Torture, mass incarceration.

It felt important to me to read a book like this for the North American category this year: one that gave me a look into my own culture similarly to how international books let me look into other cultures. I wanted to read about a widely unspoken or unexamined trait of American culture, the culture I have been born and raised in. And what is more American that widespread institutional violence and torture of vulnerable populations?

Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement is a non-fiction collection of first-hand accounts and academic studies concerning the widespread practice of solitary confinement as a method of torture in American prisons. This book is not a light read. It is the heaviest read I have engaged with in a long time. But it is also achingly beautiful in its writing and essential in its message. If you have the stomach for it, I highly recommend this book.

Edited and compiled by activist and editor Jean Casella, journalist James Ridgeway and journalist and writer Sarah Shourd, Hell is a Very Small Place is divided into two main sections: the larger Part 1: Voice from Solitary Confinement is made up of testimonies and interviews from people who have been or currently are incarcerated in solitary confinement. (Shourd herself writes the preface about her own solitary confinement as a political prisoner in Iran.) A small biographical paragraph tells the broad strokes of each person’s story and circumstances, but each chapter is left to the prisoner’s voice and discretion. They write about their stark and extremely limited surroundings, their declining physical health, their degrading mental health, and the chaos of being surrounded by, but separated from, so many others going through the same thing as them. The prison system claims that keeping these people, overwhelmingly men of color, in isolation is vital for security and safety within prisons, which is demonstrably untrue. No matter the crimes that may (or may not) have landed these people in prison, the losses of basic human dignity and rights that they are subjected to are stunning and revolting for one human being to do to another.

The shorter but no less powerful Part 2: Perspectives on Solitary Confinement is made up of academic writers putting the numbers and history behind solitary confinement and its use in America. They paint a vivid and comprehensive picture of how ineffective, unnecessary, expensive and cruel the practice is, and how our legal system got this way. Published in 2016, this book is both incredibly recent and heartbreakingly behind the times, considering the explosion in mass incarceration of immigrants in the last few years. But it will be a very long time before any of the writing here is no longer relevant.

If you have the capacity to, I would recommend reading this book and learning about the issues included here. I have only a fleeting contact with the issues of prison reform, but I have been a free world penpal with Black and Pink since 2015, which I would also highly recommend. This book is not easy, but it is not supposed to be. What this book is is important.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

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