Hell Is a Very Small Place

Voices from Solitary Confinement

The “elegant but harrowing” (San Francisco Chronicle) collection of writing from solitary confinement that lifts the veil on this widespread modern-day form of torture

“For readers who have no sense of the nature of the punishment that is exacted in their name, this collection offers an unforgettable look at the peculiar horrors and humiliations involved in solitary confinement. . . . It is difficult to read this book without feeling shame.”
—Martin Garbus in the New York Review of Books

On any given day in America, more than 80,000 people are held in solitary confinement—held in utter isolation for twenty-three or twenty-four hours a day, moved there from the general population without any legal process or justification. In a “potent cry of anguish from men and women buried way down in the hole” (Kirkus Reviews), Hell Is a Very Small Place offers rare accounts from the people who are now or have been in solitary confinement. As Chelsea Manning wrote from her own solitary confinement cell, “The personal accounts by prisoners are some of the most disturbing that I have ever read.”

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 co-founders 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.


“Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for twenty-three hours a day for months, sometime for years at a time? That is not going to make us safer. It’s not going to make us stronger.”
—President Barack Obama
“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 going to have a decent, moral, and compassionate society.”
—Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel, Southern Center for Human Rights
“A potent cry of anguish from men and women buried way down in the hole.”
Kirkus Reviews
“Elegant but harrowing.”
San Francisco Chronicle
Hell Is a Very Small Place is composed of communication and observation that is not supposed to exist: it is a book as a minor act of rebellion.”
The Los Angeles Review of Books
“Solitary confinement in American prisons has become one of our nation’s most horrendous human rights problems. Much more public attention is needed to this shameful, wasteful, cruel travesty. Hell Is a Very Small Place is vitally important.”
—Ralph Nader
“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, JustLeadershipUSA
“The personal accounts by prisoners contained in this book are some of the most disturbing that I have ever read. There were many points throughout the book when my emotions became very overwhelming, and I had to pause and catch my breath.”
—Chelsea Manning
“A gutsy book. . . . 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.”
“These stories pack a visceral punch and make a convincing case for more humane conditions, and continuing prison reform.”
Publishers Weekly

News and Reviews

New Republic

Read an excerpt from Hell Is a Very Small Place in The New Republic

The New Yorker

The New Yorker profiles Hell Is A Very Small Place editor James Ridgeway and his work advocating against solitary confinement

Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly reviews Hell Is a Very Small Place.


Kirkus calls Hell Is a Very Small Place a "potent cry of anguish from men and women buried way down in the hole."


Goodreads Reviews