The Survival Secrets of Solitaries

The negative effects – indeed, the destructive effects – of solitude on some people have been extensively studied. Most of the studies concern what might be thought of as enforced solitude, and many of them have looked at those who live alone through no choice of their own (for example, older people) and those in coerced solitude (for example, prisoners in solitary confinement).


Hermits do not live in enforced solitude, but choose the solitary life, Nevertheless, they are no less likely to experience some of the negative, or even destructive, effects of solitude.

The paper, “The survival secrets of solitaries” by Ian O’Donnell, Professor of Criminology at University College Dublin, is based on studies of prisoners in solitary confinement:

“It is difficult to imagine a more disenchanting and disempowering place than a solitary confinement cell in a high-security prison. When opportunities for meaningful human engagement are stripped away, mental health difficulties arise with disturbing regularity. In the US, where prisoners can be held in isolation for many years for administrative reasons, stories of psychological disintegration are common…. Hans Toch has written about the ‘cold, suffocating vacuum’ that is the isolation cell and how ‘it remains a tragic fact that our ultimate tool for dealing with fear-obsessed persons defies and defeats their regeneration: We isolate such persons, make them feel trapped, and seal their fate. We place those who are their own worst enemies face to face with themselves, alone, in a void.’ Some find the burden of self-examination to be unbearable.”


Ian O’Donnell Prisoners, Solitude, and Time Clarendon Studies in Criminology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014

O’Donnell was particularly interested to identify the strategies developed and used by prisoners in isolation to enable them to survive. His findings may provide valuable insights for those who freely choose solitude as Hermits into approaches to ensuring that they can avoid, or at least manage, the negative effects of solitude.

“My research revealed a number of ways that prisoners mitigate the harmful effects of time spent alone in a place not of their choosing and to a timetable not of their design. I call these the ‘seven Rs of survival’. The emphasis here is not on general patterns of adaptation to imprisonment but on how individuals respond to the specific exigencies of enforced solitude and the passing of long stretches of time. Some prisoners master none of these techniques and their time in solitary confinement results in withdrawal, destructive rumination, cognitive impairment, depression, self-harm and, exceptionally, suicide.

The survival stratagems of successful solitaries are discussed next in ascending order of importance and in descending order of prevalence. Rescheduling, Removal, Reduction, and Reorientation are commonly used and moderately effective. Resistance is less common but can sustain a prisoner for some time (although belligerence is fatiguing). Raptness, when mastered, is an effective way of truncating perceived duration and investing time with meaning. Reinterpretation is rare but potent.

Turning first to Rescheduling. This involves using different intervals to gauge the passage of time. Sociologists Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor (1972, p.97) described how a recent arrival at Durham Prison who sought advice on how to structure a 20-year sentence was told, ‘It’s easy, do it five years at a time.’ While there is obviously a measure of bravado associated with the idea that there could be anything easy about this process other than verbalising it, there is no doubt that a schedule broken down into meaningful chunks seems more manageable. Few people measure their lives in 20-year blocks, but a five-year term can be grasped. This is the around the length of time spent in secondary school and a little more than the interval between football World Cups.


Removal involves routine work and exercise, busyness as an end in itself; this alleviates the sources of stress and anxiety that can protract duration. For the literate prisoner, reading can serve this purpose by restocking the mind, allowing imaginative engagement with a text and its characters, and making the prisoner part of a community of readers. Others devise exercise regimes that do not require a training partner but that fill time and bring about a satisfying kind of tiredness. When relationships cannot be formed with human beings they are forged with other creatures instead, such as insects, mice and birds. Prisoners personify, and become attached to, animals that might otherwise be an irritating distraction. This offers an outlet for humanity’s innate sociability, what neuroscientist John Cacioppo and science editor William Patrick (2008, p.63) characterised as our ‘obligatorily gregarious’ natures…

Reorientation involves resetting temporal horizons so that the focus is on the present. If prisoners are to survive psychologically it is important that they shift their time orientation. Dwelling on the past and any associated remorse or regret, or obsessing about a future life that is unlikely to arrive in the wished-for format, introduces a degree of fretfulness that is inimical to successful navigation of the temporal landscape. The solitary prisoner who can achieve immersion in the present has stolen an important advantage over his or her environment. Having been wrenched from the world, they find themselves – at no inconsiderable cost – adopting a temporal orientation that is occasionally accompanied by mindfulness…

Some prisoners survive through Resistance. A simple way of subverting the system of solitary confinement is to undermine its prohibition on social intercourse, something men and women have been adept at doing since the first attempts were made to isolate them. Prisoners communicate by tapping on walls and pipes, leaving written messages for others to find, or prevailing upon a sympathetic staff member to act as their messenger. Fighting staff is another way of resisting but it is seldom chosen. The marked power imbalance that exists between the parties and the relative availability of equipment and reinforcements, mean that the almost certain victor in any such encounter is the member of staff. Some prisoners resist through litigating, and from their isolation cells they use the courts to further their ends.

Raptness is absorption in an activity like creative writing or craftwork. As well as speeding the passage of time, it results in a product that may enhance the self-respect and status of the person who produced it, setting them apart in terms of accomplishment. This distinguishes it from involvement in prison work more generally, in which the individual may invest no particular significance beyond its value as a Removal activity. Raptness is about following pursuits that are meaningful and individuating. As well as helping time to pass, such pursuits invest it with purpose and this further reduces its weight.

Finally, there is Reinterpretation. For prisoners who can re-cast their predicament the potential rewards are substantial. Those who can devise, or adopt, a frame of reference – often political or religious – that puts their pain in context seem to draw succour from their circumstances. For the fortunate few who can re-imagine their situation, the potential rewards are substantial.”

An extract from: Ian O’Donnell “The survival secrets of solitaries”, The Psychologist, Vol 29., March 2016 – full text available on-line at:


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