March 2016

Beth Mellow


Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd

In 1972, Herman Wallace was placed in solitary confinement after being convicted of murdering a young prison guard. He would spend the next 41 years of his life in a 6x9 cell, mostly alone, with little in the way of human interaction or entertainment. In his later years, he struck up a correspondence with a young artist, Jackie Sumell, and, guided by Wallace's detailed letters, she built a model of his dream house, which eventually became the subject of both an art exhibit and a 2013 documentary film. The model house created by Wallace and Sumell features both interior design frozen in time (cypress paneling and leopard print fabrics that were popular decades ago) and macabre touches such as hidden passageways and escape routes. The house's impact is not only in the fact that it is a lost dream, but a true window into the mind of someone who has, in a way, been frozen in time and imbued with a sense of paranoia after spending so many decades isolated in a small jail cell.

Wallace's story is only one of many shared by prisoners who have spent time in solitary confinement in a new volume titled Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. Edited by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, co-directors of Solitary Watch, a web-based watchdog project, and Sarah Shourd, a journalist who spent more than a year in solitary confinement as a political hostage of the Iranian government, the book delves into the deleterious effects of solitary confinement on prisoners and the reverberation this kind of system has in the US and abroad. It's a gutsy book: many prisoners who contributed essays have committed crimes so heinous that it is difficult to feel any sympathy for their circumstances. Then there are the prisoners like Herman Wallace, whose conviction was overturned in 2013, resulting in his release from prison and solitary confinement after decades inside, only to die of cancer three months later.

Reading essay after essay, a syndrome of psychological, physical, and social issues begins to emerge. Prisoners spending months or years in solitary confinement suffer from depression, anxiety, and some even begin to self-mutilate. Physically, some prisoners said they started to develop vision problems, as well as difficulties with spatial assessment. Socially, those eventually released from prison admitted to difficulties interacting with and being around other people. One former prisoner admitted to having issues taking the Chicago L, as the crowds of people continued to overwhelm him years after his release.

Even for those who cannot empathize with the plight of this specific group of prison inmates, some other interesting points brought up in the book are that solitary confinement is not only more costly to tax payers, but also potentially more dangerous to all involved. Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, who is currently in solitary confinement on death row in Texas, tells the story of a wild and unruly prisoner that he calls "Mad Dog." From the refuse in his cell, "Mad Dog" is able to create a blowgun that enables him to shoot darts that are filled with his Hepatitis C-infected blood at the guards. "Mad Dog" spends his days ranting and raving and finding ingenious ways to attack prison staff. Eventually, "Mad Dog" taps Whitaker to help him with his appeal (they are able to share products, publications, notes through a system of hooks and string that enable them to slip things under each others' doors). When Whitaker starts to read through the documents shared by "Mad Dog," he realizes not only is he bright and can write well, but also that many pleas for help by the seemingly crazy prisoner, such as pain relief for an injury, have gone completely ignored. What this leads Whitaker and the reader to posit is that perhaps our system of punishment is exacerbating the situation and only making things more dangerous and dire for prison staff and the wider population.

For the most part, the essays in Hell is a Very Small Place are not only fascinating, but also expose readers to a whole way of life that is otherwise invisible to those of us who have never set foot in a prison. With that said, the expert section at the end of the book featuring legal scholars and psychologists, while informative, felt like it could have been a bit more robust. Only one of the experts, Jeanne Theoharis, delved into her own personal experiences as she wrote about a student who was being held in solitary confinement after being arrested on terrorism-related charges. It would have also rounded out the book to hear some personal accounts from others who have worked closely with this population, in addition to the legal and psychological ramifications that were laid out by the contributors.

Without ever having spent a day in solitary confinement, it is difficult to understand the impact of such a sentence. This book takes a first stab at doing just that. As Sarah Shroud so eloquently writes at the close of her preface:

Being human is relational, plain and simple. We exist in relationship to one another, to ideas, and to the world. It's the most essential thing about us as a species: how we realize our potential as individuals and create meaningful lives.

Without that, we shrink. Day by day, we slowly die.

Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd
The New Press
ISBN: 978-1620971376
240 pages