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Event Preview: Exploring Dimensions Of Solitary Confinement With Jean Casella

For our next Shadowproof Presents live video event on Thursday, April 28 at 8:00pm Eastern, I will interview Jean Casella, co-director of Solitary Watch and one of the editors of Hell Is A Very Small Place: Voices From Solitary Confinement.

Hell Is A Very Small Place is a collection of first-hand accounts and expert analyses of solitary confinement in America, and it could not have come at a more important moment in the evolution of the nation’s attitude toward criminal justice.

In the United States, the use of solitary confinement is widespread and integral to the disciplinary structure of most prison systems, yet the practice is so secretive that we don’t even know how many people are in isolation on any given day. In spite of the secrecy, the more we know about solitary and what it does to people, the harder it becomes to justify its use in any context.

There is a growing consensus that the practice amounts to torture, and like other forms of torture, the proliferation of solitary confinement has largely depended on keeping accounts, like those told in Hell Is A Very Small Place, out of public discussions of policy.

As shocking as they are, the arguments and statistics commonly used to convey the devastation wrought by solitary confinement fail to persuade those of us on the outside to truly imagine the experience. Only the stories of those who have lived it can do that. In this way, Hell Is A Very Small Place is a critical work that forces readers to reconcile their beliefs and conceptions about solitary confinement with the words of people enduring it right now. It forces us to ask ourselves if we as a society can continue to bare the casual daily condemnation of potentially hundreds of thousands of people to something that can hardly be called an existence.

The book is broken up into two parts. The first part contains testimonies from people who are, and have been, in solitary confinement, exploring the themes of enduring, resisting and surviving isolation. In the second section of the book, advocates and scholars share their ‘view from the outside’, offering thought provoking analyses derived from working closely with and studying isolation and its subjects.

The first-hand accounts from victims of isolation are intensely personal. These are spaces so alien, and conditions so frighteningly opposite of our daily needs and lives, that it is truly a wonder that there are people who have been subject to them for decades and are still able to write so gracefully and forcefully about what has been done to them.

The book raises aspects of solitary confinement that are rarely examined: the multitudinous types of solitary confinement, each with their own set of rules and tortures aimed at restricting every semblance of contact, communication or awareness of ones situation in space and time; the reasons—real or imagined, justified or not—one is given for being placed there, and what one can reasonably do to get out; the feeling of knowing one’s isolation is indefinite, or the feeling of not knowing how long it may continue, or if anyone even knows they exist; how the maddening illusion of ‘due process’ and the appearance of a path to remedy for grievances, some of which may seem small to most people but can occupy one’s entire universe when trapped in a tiny cell, belies any real intention of addressing your needs.

In other passages, readers are provided context for why prisoners might engage in violent behavior or why they would flood their cells and smear feces on their walls, given the incredible consequences they face. The book describes how inmates come to covet a “secret air supply” in their cell, study every bolt and rivet in their cell, or decline their only hour of “recreation time” in a cage outside their cell.

Readers are also exposed to the twisted concepts that motivate corrections officials and administrators to use fabricated notions of privacy and security to deny both to the prisoner.

The excruciating detail of days spent in solitary confinement brings new meaning to popular notions of boredom. This is a place, a very small place, where you are forced to live for endless days at war with your own nervous system. It is, as some have referred to it, a sentence worse than death.

Hell Is A Very Small Place will bring readers discomfort, but it is discomfort that each and every American should be made to feel if we are to continue the practice of solitary confinement. It will force you to grapple with the question of whether there is anyone we can justify using it against, or if it can be used carefully and in a way that produces anything but more suffering—for the prisoner and for society.

Jean and I will spend an hour digging into these concepts and issues, as told through the stories of survivors, during our conversation on April 28th, and I hope you will join us.

To watch the live interview, just visit on April 28th at 8pm Eastern, and we will have a post up with the livestream embedded.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.