OUR NEW BOOK: Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement

Hot off the press, the first major trade book on solitary!

Order now from The New Press.
Order now from Indie Bound.
Order now from Amazon – Hardcover or eBook



After a standing-room-only launch at the Open Society Foundations in New York on March 15, we are planning several more book events/readings in the coming months. Stay tuned for future updates.

Wednesday, April 13, 6-8 pm: Launch Event and Reading at Busboys & Poets, 14th and V Streets, Washington, DC. Click here for details.

Wednesday, April 20, 7-9 pm: Reading and Panel Discussion with Center for Constitutional Rights and Others at Downtown Community Television (DCTV), 87 Lafayette Street, New York, NY. Details to be announced.

Thursday, June 9, 6-7 pm: Reading by Sarah Shourd at Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA.


hell coverPresident Barack Obama, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Pope Francis have all criticized the widespread use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez has denounced the use of solitary beyond fifteen days as a form of cruel and degrading treatment that often rises to the level of torture. Yet the United States holds more than eighty thousand people in isolation on any given day. Now, sixteen authors vividly describe the realities of life in solitary.

In a book that will add a startling new dimension to the debates around human rights and prison reform, former and current prisoners describe the devastating effects of solitary confinement on their minds and bodies, the solidarity expressed between individuals who live side by side for years without ever meeting one another face to face, the ever-present specters of madness and suicide, and the struggle to maintain hope and humanity.

These firsthand accounts are supplemented by the writing of noted experts, exploring the psychological, legal, ethical, and political dimensions of solitary confinement, and a comprehensive introduction by Solitary Watch’s James Ridgeway and Jean Casella. Sarah Shourd, herself a survivor of more than a year of solitary confinement, writes eloquently in a preface about an experience that changed her life. The powerful cover art is by renowned political artist Molly Crabapple.


Kirkus Reviews: “The founders of a watchdog group dedicated to stopping the practice of solitary confinement gather voices from victims of this hellish punishment. The editors of this slim but powerful collection of essays may wear their political agendas on their sleeves, but they make their arguments with undeniable efficacy…In collecting essays from prisoners and mental health experts, the editors dig deep into the frailties of the human mind as well as the savagery of the American penal system and its ilk. Many of the men and women whose voices are captured here measure their time in solitary not in years but in decades. Some are soul-deadening…Other writers are startlingly articulate and unnervingly funny, despite the violence and grief spilled out on the page…The stories by people victimized by solitary confinement are followed by articulate essays by medical and legal professionals about the human costs of the practice. In her introduction, Shourd says it best: ‘Locking a person in a box is a sick and perverse thing to do. It benefits no one—not even the governments who allow it. It’s torture.’ A potent cry of anguish from men and women buried way down in the hole.”

Publishers Weekly: “In this grim, no-holds-barred exposé, 21 essays and academic papers critique the use of solitary confinement in prison, looking at the ruinous effects on those forced to endure it for weeks, months, years, or even decades at a time. Casella and Ridgeway are no strangers to this topic: they’re the cofounders of Solitary Watch, a watchdog group formed to investigate the practice. Shourd, a journalist who spent 410 days as a political hostage in Iran from 2009 to 2010, brings firsthand knowledge. Selections written by former and current inmates assemble a litany of horror and shocking treatment, backing the argument that no one deserves this level of punishment, regardless of the crimes committed…These stories pack a visceral punch and make a convincing case for more humane conditions, better oversight, and continuing prison reform.”

Advance Praise:

“We will never achieve justice in this country until we have the courage to look unblinkingly into the hidden corners of our system of mass incarceration, where men and women are locked away and forgotten—stored like meat in a freezer. This book does just that.”  —VAN JONES, author of Rebuild the Dream

“An extraordinary collection of testimonials from men and women who have endured solitary confinement and, unlike many others, survived. . . . Hell is a Very Small Place probes the darkest corners of a prison system where, all too often, the urge to punish has prevailed over law, morality, and human decency.”  —DAVID C. FATHI, director, ACLU National Prison Project

“A devastating look in the mirror for a society that has hidden the depths of its cruelty behind concrete and steel. Hell is a Very Small Place puts us face with the smells, the sounds, and the profound despair of solitary confinement, and is a call to moral outrage, repentance, and action.”
—REV. LAURA MARKLE DOWNTON, director of U.S. Policy, National Religious Campaign Against Torture

“This important book leaves no doubt that solitary confinement has no place in a civilized society. The story of each person subject to solitary shows that he or she is somebody and that the life that is thrown away is not beyond redemption. Together they demonstrate the urgency of turning from hatred to understanding and from vengeance to reconciliation if we are doing to have a decent, moral and compassionate society.” —STEPHEN BRIGHT, president and senior counsel, Southern Center for Human Rights

“Confronts the moral catastrophe of solitary confinement through compelling and courageous testimonies by the world’s premier experts on the matter: the confined themselves.”  —GLENN E. MARTIN, founder and president, Just Leadership USA

“Please take the time to read these haunting voices of people in solitary, along with experts and activists. It is vitally important.”

About the Authors:

JEAN CASELLA is co-director of Solitary Watch, a web-based watchdog project, and a Soros Justice Fellow. She is the editor of two previous anthologies and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

JAMES RIDGEWAY has been an investigative journalist for more than fifty years and is the author of eighteen previous books. He is co-director of Solitary Watch and recent recipient of a Soros Justice Fellowship, Alicia Patterson Fellowship, and Media for a Just Society Award. He lives in Washington, D.C.

SARAH SHOURD, a journalist and playwright, was held as a political hostage by the Iranian government, including 410 days in solitary, an experience she chronicled in A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. She lives in Oakland, California.

Publication Information:

Publication date: February 2, 2016

240 pages, 5 ½ x 8 ½”

ISBN: 978-1-62097-137-6

Hardcover, $25.95

E-Book, $16.02