The best books to understand solitary confinement

Amir Ahmadi Arian Author Of Then the Fish Swallowed Him
By Amir Ahmadi Arian

Who am I?

As a writer and journalist in Iran, I knew many activists and journalists who spent time in solitary confinement. I noticed that this part of their prison experience was the hardest one for them to put to words, even those keen on sharing their experiences have a much easier time talking about the interrogation room but remain strangely reticent about the solitary cell. When I set out to write a novel about a bus driver who ends up in jail, I decided to dedicate several chapters of the book to his time in solitary confinement. That research sent me down the rabbit hole of interviewing former prisoners and reading widely about the solitary experience.


I wrote...

Then the Fish Swallowed Him

By Amir Ahmadi Arian,

Book cover of Then the Fish Swallowed Him

What is my book about?

Yunus Turabi, a bus driver in Tehran, leads an unremarkable life. A solitary man since the unexpected deaths of his father and mother years ago, he is decidedly apolitical—even during the driver’s strike and its bloody end. But everyone has their breaking point, and Yunus has reached his.

Handcuffed and blindfolded, he is taken to the infamous Evin prison for political dissidents. Inside this stark, strangely ordered world, his fate becomes entwined with Hajj Saeed, his personal interrogator. Yunus endures a mind-bending cycle of solitary confinement and interrogation. As Yunus struggles to hold on to his sanity and evade Saeed’s increasingly undeniable accusations, he must eventually make an impossible choice: continue fighting or submit to the system of lies upholding Iran’s power.

The books I picked & why

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In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison

By Jack Henry Abbott,

Book cover of In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison

Why this book?

After the news came out that Norman Mailer was writing a book about the life of Gary Gilmore, which came to be his magnum opus, The Executioner’s Song, he received a letter from a convict named Jack Henry Abbott. An avid reader of philosophy and literature who was also serving a life sentence, Abbott wrote to warn the renowned author against misapprehending American prisons and to teach him how to write about the violence of incarceration. The two men exchanged long, detailed letters. Eventually, Mailer collected Abbott’s letters in this book. In his letters, in a tone both detached and lyrical, Abbott writes unforgettably about what spending long years in prison does to one’s soul and body. In my view, the letter on solitary confinement is the finest and most harrowing chapter of this book.  


The American Notes

By Charles Dickens,

Book cover of The American Notes

Why this book?

Charles Dickens the novelist needs no introduction, but not many people appreciate how fine a nonfiction writer he was. The American Notes is a testament to this, especially the famous solitary confinement chapter. Dickens traveled widely in the US, and he visited the first solitary confinement compound in Philadelphia. The people in charge, excited by the arrival of such an esteemed visitor, took him around the premises and allowed him to speak with a few prisoners. After that, Dickens wrote a passionate, brutal attack on solitary confinement as a barbaric form of torture, interspersing his indictment with heart-wrenching accounts of his meetings with the demoralized inmates.


A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran

By Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal, Sarah Shourd

Book cover of A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran

Why this book?

Those interested in the never-ending drama of US-Iranian relations since 1979 probably remember the affair of the mountain climbers. Three Americans, hiking the mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan, mistakenly crossed the border into Iran. They were taken to Evin prison in Tehran, where they were imprisoned for two years, a good part of which they spent in solitary confinement as Iran and the US used them as pawns in their complicated dance of diplomacy. After their release, the hikers wrote a memoir together. This is one of the best accounts of solitary confinement in Evin available in English.


Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement

By Jean Casella (editor), James Ridgeway (editor), Sarah Shourd (editor)

Book cover of Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement

Why this book?

The American carceral system is notorious for long, senseless solitary confinement sentences. While this is now public knowledge, we have actually heard very little from the people who have undergone such brutality. Hell Is A Very Small Place aims to give a platform to these people. This book is an invaluable collection of first-person accounts, composed by the people who lived this horror, many of them for unconscionably long periods. In their distinct voices, they articulate myriad ways time in solitary leads to the destruction of the human soul.  


Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives

By Lisa Guenther,

Book cover of Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives

Why this book?

My list would not be complete without a work of scholarship. Of the texts I encountered during my research, this one stayed with me. It helped me develop a deeper, more philosophical insight into solitary experience. This book begins in the early days of the penitentiary system in the US, analyzing the inmates' experiences through a phenomenological approach. It discusses sensory deprivation, the way the disorienting experience of time in solitary interferes with basic sensory perception, and what this type of confinement does to the human mind. The author shows that all the justifications about the redemptive, corrective or reformative potential of this form of punishment are weak attempts at concealing what it is: an effective tool for the annihilation of human subjectivity.


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