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Voices from Solitary Confinement

edited by Jean Casella & James Ridgeway & Sarah Shourd

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 2016
ISBN: 978-1620971376
Publisher: The New Press

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. Casella and Ridgeway are co-founders of Solitary Watch, and journalist Shourd chronicled her 410 days of solitary confinement in her memoir A Sliver of Light (2014). 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, such as William Blake describing his nearly 30 years of solitary in “A Sentence Worse Than Death”: “I’ve experienced times so difficult and felt boredom and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body.” Other writers are startlingly articulate and unnervingly funny, despite the violence and grief spilled out on the page. Take Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, whose essay “A Nothing Would Do as Well” starts with an attention-getter: “The first time I met Mad Dog, he nearly shot me with a Hepatitis C–infected blowgun dart.” 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.