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Solitary Hell: There But for Fortune

Show me the prison, show me the jail

Show me the prisoner, whose life has gone stale

And I’ll show you a young man

With so many reasons why

And there but for fortune, go you or I…

–Phil Ochs, “There but for Fortune”

Recently, Barack Obama made some comments regarding the use of solitary confinement in United States prisons. It was during his remarks discussing the damage this practice does that he told the public that juveniles in federal prison will no longer be held in solitary confinement and that the adult prisoners will serve shorter terms in solitary for disciplinary offenses.

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, Obama further expounded on this practice in penology, asking, “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary(my italics) solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” While Obama’s action and essay are certainly a step in the right direction, one is left wondering a couple of things. The first is, when state prison systems will follow Obama’s lead in this area; the second question is what exactly he means when he refers to “unnecessary solitary confinement?”

Hell is a Very Small Place is a just-published book of essays and reflections by prisoners who have been in solitary and those who advocate for their freedom. The editors include Sarah Sho

Shourd, who had her own experience with solitary confinement as a prisoner in an Iranian prison. The other editors are the longtime investigative reporter James Ridgeway and Solitary Watch co-director Jean Casella. The book hellsmallitself argues that there is no such thing as “necessary” solitary confinement. The stories told by this text’s writers describe a torture almost impossible for those of us who have never experienced extended isolation to comprehend. Hell is a Very Small Place begins by introducing the earliest use of solitary confinement in the United States, where the practice began.

Originally conceived of by Quakers who saw such isolation as a means for prisoners to do “penance’ for their crime, solitary confinement was challenged early and often by writers like Alexis deTocqueville and Charles Dickens. It has been challenged in the courts, but never outlawed, although some limitations have been placed on its use in some states. It is estimated that more than 80,000 prisoners are in solitary on any given day in the United States. That’s about the same number of people who will have tickets to the upcoming Super Bowl game in Santa Clara, CA on February 7, 2016.

Although it fell out of favor among penologists for a couple decades in the twentieth century, solitary confinement came back into favor in the late 1970s and especially in the 1980s, when law and order politicians ruled the land. With pseudoscientific backing (later retracted) that claimed certain individuals were beyond redemption and incapable of reform, legislators, criminologists and prison officials began cutting educational and other rehabilitative programs in prisons, replacing them with longer sentences and more solitary confinement. In addition, the growing reach of the “War on Drugs” begun under President Nixon and expanding ever since, meant that thousands more US residents were being locked up. Like other texts on the subject, the editors and some of the essayists discuss the monetary jackpot this meant for what is now known as the prison-industrial complex. Also noted is how law enforcement, prisons and the industries associated with both have a vested economic interest in making sure people continue to get locked up at ever greater rates. When it comes to solitary confinement units, there is also a connection between the growth of such cells and the monies involved.

Yet, despite all these facts and figures, what makes this book such an emotional read are the personal stories of the prisoners who have been put into solitary. These anecdotal tales are the best possible proof that the practice of solitary confinement for any reason—punishment, gang “validation,” or being labeled a “terrorist”—should be abolished forever. The psychological and physical damage suffered by these human individuals is but the tip of an iceberg peopled by tens of thousands. Its brutality is as incomprehensible as it is invisible to the untrained eye. The essays herein are written in anger and despair; with little hope and even less humor. The fact that most people who live in the United States either don’t know or don’t care about this phenomenon is a testament to humanity’s darker urges.

The confluence of psychiatry, medications, and the refusal to see the malaise represented by America’s huge population of prisoners as the communal failure of a civilization makes it that much easier to put many of those prisoners into solitary confinement. Whether the reason for the confinement is punishment, “protection,” supposed membership in a gang or political organization feared by prison authorities, or an attempt to coerce accused terrorists into pleading out, the damage done to our society is not only inexcusable, it is also unknown. Hell is a Very Small Place makes this abundantly clear. By combining personal stories with legal and psychological articles discussing solitary imprisonment, the editors have assembled a panoramic description of the practice. Indeed, if I were to recommend just one book on this topic to an interested citizen, I would recommend this one.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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