[Image: The cover of the book is black jagged angular lines making boxes that spiral in towards the center of the cover. In the center is a white space with a drawing of a person curled into the fetal position. They have black hair, brown skin, and are wearing an orange prison uniform. Above them is the title of the book in white hand drawn letters and below them is the byline in the same letters. The bottom of the image has both corners blacked out where one side says "edited by..." and the other lists "Jean Casella, James Rdgeway, Sarah Shourd."]Also posted to goodreads.
Hell is a Very Small Place is partially a collection of essays of people who are or were in solitary confinement telling stories about their experiences. It is also composed of essays from lawyers, professors, psychologists, and journalists about why solitary confinement is unethical and illogical.
The essays telling the stories of peoples experiences are diverse in demographics and eerily similar as far as the abuses and torture suffered in each place. All of the essays tell stories of the descent into madness that occurs when one is deprived of human contact (physically, verbally, and otherwise,) natural light, medical care, food, and other basic necessities. Solitary confinement always causes lasting damage- especially when prisoners are held in it for extended periods of time. The essays by a trans woman and a gay cis man show how being LGBTQ and/or gender nonconforming is a punishable offense in prisons while being couched in the idea of "safety" and "protection" for LGBTQ people in prison. The essays also show how prisons lie to insist there is a need for solitary confinement based on ill-defined parameters such as gang affiliation, mild infarctions such as talking back to guards, or to quell any organized resistance such as hunger striking to improve the conditions in prisons. Once one is placed in solitary, a cyclic nature of getting stuck there for these reasons created by the oppressive institutions that are prisons begins.
I have had prison pen pals who have spent time in solitary, including one for extended amount of time due to an accusation of gang affiliation and the other for perceived homosexual activity (which would also garner you a sex offense and placement on a registry for something like two women consensually hugging.) I can say that the stories in this book are not unique. My friend in solitary for the longer time slowly lost his mind in permanent ways and has had a very difficult time readjusting to general population despite wanting to be out of solitary.
Even if one is heartless enough not to care about prisoners and their torture in solitary, it makes no sense as a punitive or rehabilitative measure. When people leave solitary, they are always worse off whether they are in the prison population or back out in the world. They struggle with relationships, open space, authority, and other things far worse than those never placed in solitary confinement.
The essays in the latter part of the book range from descriptions of the researched psychological effects of solitary by outside clinicians and/or researchers, the laws in place to keep solitary confinement going, or stories of those held there as they are perceived by someone on the outside. These essays are mostly good, but I found one topic to be lacking and that was the discussion of LGBTQ prisoners in solitary confinement. Given that multiple stories told by these people existed in the first part of the book, I would have liked to see at least one essay in the latter part focused on homophobia and transphobia in prisons and why such large percentages of LGBTQ people in prisons end up in solitary without even disobeying any written rules. LGBTQ prisoners are some of the most ill treated in prisons, especially when their identities intersect with other oppression such as racism and misogyny. That is why this book gets 4 stars instead of 5.
Overall this book does a good job showing how solitary confinement is literal torture that some prisoners describe as a sentence worse than death and one essay describes as "a living death sentence." It is an important read for anyone interested in prisons and could be handed to any person who is ignorant of how prisons are hellish places that do not rehabilitate or stop future crime.