Being in prison is the worst nightmare of all. If a prisoner committed any mistake or crime inside jail, he will be locked down for a certain period of time inside the so-called hole or solitary confinement. Too violent or uncooperative prisoners that cannot be kept in normal cells, members of gangs, and those who have been put there for their own safety or protection are the ones facing time in prison. Though getting incarcerated could happen to anyone in jail, the stigma and the trauma that result from it are matters of serious consideration.
Solitary confinement could result in psychological, emotional, and mental illness. The inmates are locked down for 23 hours a day, causing a lot of trauma to their mental state. The cell ranges from 6 by 9 feet to 8 by 9 feet. Usually, meals come from slots to avoid contact with guards. No communication is available. Rooms do not even have windows. You are not allowed to see any sunshine. The vision is depressing, but the supposed punishment is meant to “teach a lesson” to prisoners who don’t cooperate with their officers and fellow inmates.
Being kept in isolation in three days or more is enough to make a person depressed. It can even drive him insane. The thing about solitary confinement is that either you avoid it, or you survive in it. Because it’s a sort of punishment, not all inmates will go through this ordeal. Again, it depends on why you were jailed and who kept you there. In the past, people were kept in isolation because they are forced to spill information. Others became targets of malice. Nevertheless, you need to be strong physically, mentally, and even spiritually.
So, how to survive isolation (the hole) in jail? Surviving in it depends on every person. Some are able to cope easily. Unfortunately, some have a hard time coping. Terry Kupers, one of the known psychologists, has said that solitary confinement destroys people as human beings. Based on some literature review studies done by Sharon Shaley (2008) and Peter Scharff Smith (2006), some typical symptoms of it are anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, paranoia and psychosis, and self-harm. Anxiety and depression may already come from what they feel about their situation as prisoners. However, paranoia and other mental disorders indeed stem from getting separated from other inmates.
The lack of space also adds to the panic attack. Imagine being in the a small cell, where only one person could fit in. It may send a person to imagine a lot of extreme scenarios, one of which is the isolation period getting extended.
Having a lack of physical activity, social interaction, and visual stimulation due to long-term isolation has been shown to lead to stress and depression, and also a change in the structure of the brain as a consequence. Some evidence showed that the longer inmates are depressed and untreated, the more their hippocampus shrinks. As a result, they have difficulty controlling their stress and emotions.
Some prisoners in that kind of confinement have found ways of surviving. One example is the death row inmate Anthony Graves, who said in his Business Insider interview that the situation makes you feel hopeless. He said one must rise above that. If you cannot, you are going to be carried out not even knowing your complete name. He also said that he played tricks with himself to find a mental escape.
Because there is no one else with them in the cell, some inmates even talk to the walls or to themselves just so they could release their pent-up emotions. They write on walls to express themselves, or count the days when they would be released. At times, solitary confinement could even take weeks.
Another inmate who experienced “the hole,” Shujaa Graham, who was wrongly convicted of killing a prison guard, said he programmed himself. Every day he woke up 5 a.m. and then did some exercises like jumping jacks and push-ups. Then he went to a deep meditative state in which he pretended he was visiting his family members. This technique was his defense mechanism — the “programming” was his version of rewiring his brain and his experiences so that coping and acceptance came easily to him.
Both Graham and Graves didn’t harm themselves or become psychotic in some way, perhaps in some part of these coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, they said their past lives still haunt them even though they are now free. They also added that it could be tough to deal with people after years and years of being alone. Being a loner is what they became. Being isolated has affected them so much, and this “monster” was difficult for them to vanquish. There were times when they would wake up from a nightmare and it would be hard for them to sleep again. Such is the trauma of isolation in jail.
Positive thinking will lead you to conquer it. Enjoy the silence. Think of the things you’d like to do and the person you want to become after passing that tough challenge in life. Pessimism will be a negative force that will pull you down. Always have a positive outlook on things. Courage is your best friend. If they can do it, you can also get through it.
Make the most of that cramped space. Use it to reflect on the things happening to you. Use whatever you could find to distract yourself. Sing to yourself if you have to. A poet who was once incarcerated during the tenure of a dictatorial president wrote a piece entitled “An Armstretch of the Sky,” which perfectly encapsulates his experience in isolation. In the cell, his only solace was the stretch of sky seen from the tiny window. But instead of giving up, that window and vision of the sky outside gave him hope, not just of his eventual release, but also of his countrymen’s freedom from tyranny.
Be like this poet. Stir that courage in your heart and be steadfast. You do not have to die in that cell. Keep still and think that you will get out of your predicament. Isolation is just one of the trials that you’ll go through in prison, but instead of letting it destroy you, use it to make you a stronger and better person.