The best books about solitary confinement

1 authors have picked their favorite books about solitary confinement and why they recommend each book.

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The American Notes

By Charles Dickens,

Book cover of The American Notes

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.


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.

Hell Is a Very Small Place

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

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

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.  


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.

Solitary Confinement

By Lisa Guenther,

Book cover of Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives

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.


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.

Stolen Time

By Sunny Jacobs,

Book cover of Stolen Time: One Woman's Inspiring Story as an Innocent Condemned to Death

This is my all-time favourite book. I heard the author tell her story and her resilience over a zoom conference and I immediately knew that my life would never be the same. I didn’t know how but I knew I would be different.

Stolen Time is about a woman wrongly convicted for murder who spent 17 years incarcerated, five of those years were spent in solitary confinement on death row. Her partner was also sentenced and in fact executed two years before Sunny was exonerated. It's the beautiful way Sunny speaks that made this my all-time favourite read. It’s a love story with real tragedy but told in the most resilient and forgiving way. I found it totally inspiring. Sunny taught me that no matter what the circumstances we have a duty to love and forgive no matter what if we want to live free. No one can steal our…


Who am I?

I am Karen Slater the author of My Journey Through Hell. It’s a memoir of addiction and generational abuse. A story about my dysfunctional childhood and the negative consequences that took me to hell and back. The books I love the most are the stories that inspire me. The true stories of real people overcoming tragedy and adversity give me such hope and motivation to keep on doing what I do and reach other people still struggling. I like to think these are the books that radiate courage and optimism and let others know that we all have our crosses to bear but we can bear them nonetheless.


I wrote...

My Journey Through Hell: Finding My True Worth

By Karen Slater,

Book cover of My Journey Through Hell: Finding My True Worth

What is my book about?

Karen grew up believing she was worth nothing, told by her parents on a daily basis she was a useless excuse for a human being. She was beaten and abused and exposed to the dangers of a rough council estate in Newcastle’s West End. 

Her life became a drunken blur as she spiraled out of control and eventually there was only one way out. She was found just in time and in intensive care she watched a slowing heart monitor and begged her God to let her die. As she drifted in and out of consciousness spoke to her, told her that she had something to live for, a purpose, because why should people be made to suffer the way she had? She had to live, had to talk to the abused, help the victims of domestic violence, those who had been raped, and the alcoholics and the addicts. The day she left hospital Karen Slater bought some exercise books and some pens and began to write. This is her story, her message to the world.

The Man Died

By Wole Soyinka,

Book cover of The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka

I think this book is very important because Soyinka shows that the right of the people to protest cannot be restricted by walls or chains. That the oppressor is totally helpless against the will of the people, as also shown in Taduno’s Song by the protagonist Taduno and Kongi, a character modelled on Soyinka. Imprisoned without trial by the authorities at the start of the Nigerian civil war, Wole Soyinka’s prison notes provide records of the twenty 27 months he spent in solitary confinement, the very basis of the words that would cement his place as a prisoner of conscience and give rise to a body of work that would illuminate the world.


Who am I?

As a teenager in the 80s, I witnessed the evils of dictatorship up to the 90s. And it was at that time that I became fascinated with the late iconic Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, who used his music as a weapon against tyranny. I read books such as The Man Died by Wole Soyinka, Animal Farm by George Orwell and Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, and my love for protest literature was formed. Growing up, Fela Kuti’s philosophy shaped me and I found myself identifying with the downtrodden. And then I began to explore universal themes such as love, courage, and sacrifice through my writing.    


I wrote...

Taduno's Song

By Odafe Atogun,

Book cover of Taduno's Song

What is my book about?

The stunning debut from a fresh Nigerian literary voice: a mesmerizing, deceptively simple, Kafkaesque narrative, resonant of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and lightly informed by the life of Nigerian musical superstar Fela Kuti—a powerful story of love, sacrifice, and courage.

The day a stained brown envelope is delivered from Taduno’s homeland, he knows that the time has come to return from exile. Arriving full of hope, the musician discovers that his people no longer recognize him, and no one recalls his voice. His girlfriend, Lela, has disappeared, abducted by government agents. Taduno wanders through his house in search of clues, but all traces of his old life have been erased. As he becomes aware that all that is left of himself is an emptiness, Taduno finds new purpose: to unravel the mystery of his lost life and to find his lost love. But soon he must face a difficult decision: to fight the power or save his woman, to sing for love or for his people.

In the Belly of the Beast

By Jack Henry Abbott,

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

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.  


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.

Solitary

By Albert Woodfox,

Book cover of Solitary

Any understanding of mass incarceration must be grounded in the experience of people who have been incarcerated. Alfred Woodfox’s autobiography of spending more than four decades in prison, the bulk of it in solitary confinement, is both a rich political analysis by a revolutionary who emerged from the Black Panther Party and a deeply troubling account of the tortured existence of hundreds of thousands of people locked away in US prisons for acts that they either did not carry out or for which ridiculously punitive laws and policies in addressing apparent harms done have been applied. No book about prison life will convince a reader more of the inhumanity of mass incarceration nor of the ability of a revolutionary human spirit to conquer whatever comes their way. 


Who am I?

I've been a social justice activist all my life. In my younger years, I turned to violence to bring about liberation. That landed me a federal arrest warrant which I avoided for 27 years by living as a fugitive. I spent most of that time in southern Africa, joining freedom movements against apartheid and colonialism. Arrested and extradited to the U.S. in 2002 I spent 6 1/2 years in California prisons while observing the impact of mass incarceration. I vowed to direct my energy to end mass incarceration through grassroots organizing. Since then I've been a writer, researcher, and activist in my local community of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois as well as being partner and father to my two sons.


I wrote...

Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

By James Kilgore,

Book cover of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

What is my book about?

Drawing on a growing body of literature and activism, Understanding Mass Incarceration describes competing theories of criminal justice—from rehabilitation to retribution, from restorative justice to justice reinvestment. In a lively, accessible style, author James Kilgore, who spent six years in prison himself, illuminates the difference between prisons and jails, probation and parole, laying out key concepts and policies such as the War on Drugs, broken windows policing, three-strikes sentencing, the school-to-prison pipeline, recidivism, and prison privatization. Informed by the crucial lenses of race and gender, he addresses issues typically omitted from the discussion: the rapidly increasing incarceration of women, Latinx folk, and transgender people; the growing imprisonment of immigrants; and the devastating impact of mass incarceration on communities.

The Winter of Enchantment

By Victoria Walker,

Book cover of The Winter of Enchantment

The Winter of Enchantment is a fantasy rather than science fiction, but it still carries its protagonist, Sebastian, to another world and it’s a very far world indeed. Through the agency of a dimension travelling cat, a mirror, and a teapot, Sebastian leaves Victorian London and meets a girl named Melissa, a prisoner in the enchanter’s realm. Soon the new friends are on the quest for the items that will release Melissa from her century of solitary confinement, but since Melissa can’t leave her lonely but luxurious prison, Sebastian has to go alone. I’ve loved this book for a long time. There is a sequel, but that rather retcons parts of the first one.


Who am I?

I’m Tasmanian. I’ve loved books set in other worlds since I encountered Robert Heinlein’s juveniles in my teens. I often find books set in the mundane world of here-and-now implausible or dull, because the adventures seem contrived or else result from characters doing something stupid or bad. If characters venture to other worlds, or other planets though—that’s a different ballgame! I read a great deal of fantasy and sci-fi, and when I was fourteen, I started writing my own. I enjoy a wide variety of genres, but my favourite stories are those where I can follow relatable characters through wild adventures and believe every line.  


I wrote...

Elysian Dawn

By Sally Odgers,

Book cover of Elysian Dawn

What is my book about?

Marianne Arcadia expected to marry Jeremiah and raise a family. Edsen Balm had no more hope than to stay close to Marianne. Jameel Singh intended to travel home to Terra to meet his fiancée’s parents. Hanaka Moon was meant to oversee the next generation of ship-born and pass the mantle of healer to her daughters. Meera Singh wanted to prove herself as the brightest new diamond in Mother Shiva’s crown. Cornelia Conti hoped to get her embroidery done and to find a shampoo that didn’t contain Stay-colour. All their plans crash-landed with the starship Elysian Dawn but that, as they say, was just the beginning.

Then the Fish Swallowed Him

By Amir Ahmadi Arian,

Book cover of Then the Fish Swallowed Him

Set during the 2005 bus-driver strikes in Iran, this book explores imprisonment at nearly every level—from the confinement of a totalitarian regime to the physical and psychological torture of a political prisoner, to the locked doors of one’s own mind, to the escape sought (and sometimes found) in heroine. What sticks with me most, however, is the interior exploration of the main character, Yunus, and the way seemingly small decisions lead to enormous consequences. 


Who am I?

The idea for my first novel came from a 1946 study of Alabama parolees, linking individual characteristics to the likelihood of recidivism. The outcomes were surprising in many instances: “promising factors” such as education, profession, and intelligence didn’t correlate with good behavior. This got me thinking about the lasting effects of imprisonment. Sentences don’t necessarily end when an inmate walks out the prison door. I see this again and again in the previously incarcerated students I teach at Helena College—they’ve been released from an institution, but mental and physical imprisonment lingers, and sometimes grows. The books on this list don’t shy away from that hard reality.


I wrote...

Work Like Any Other

By Virginia Reeves,

Book cover of Work Like Any Other

What is my book about?

Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Work Like Any Other follows a prideful electrician as he struggles to overcome past sins, find peace, and rescue his marriage after being sent to prison for manslaughter. At the start of the twentieth century, Roscoe T Martin set his sights on a new type of power spreading across the country: electricity. But when his wife, Marie, inherits her father’s failing farm, Roscoe has to give up his livelihood, with great cost to his sense of self, his marriage, and his family.

Then a young man working for the state power company stumbles on Roscoe’s illegal lines and is electrocuted, and everything changes: Roscoe is arrested; the farm once more starts to deteriorate; and Marie abandons her husband, leaving him to face his twenty-year sentence alone.

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