Solitary isn’t just lonely. Those who spend extended periods in isolation often start to lose their minds. As the physician and journalist Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker, “simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with people.”
Inmates and others who spend time in isolation — like prisoners of war — have found ways of coping, though.
“You have nothing but four walls and a steel door … You end up slowly slipping,” exonerated death row inmate Anthony Graves told Business Insider. Graves added, “The situation makes you hopeless … You have to rise above that because if you can’t you’re going to be carried out of there not even knowing your name.”
Cells in solitary range from 6- by 9-feet to 8- by 10-feet, according to the advocacy group Solitary Watch. Inmates generally spend 23 hours a day alone there. Meals come through slots — eliminating contact even with guards. The lack of human contact has caused mental illness even in healthy inmates, according to the ACLU.
Wrongly convicted inmate Shujaa Graham found solace in routine while he was in solitary. Graham, who’s now 62, spent three years in solitary on death row after he was framed for murdering a prison guard.
“I kept myself occupied,” he said. “I programmed myself.” He woke up at 5 a.m. every day and did exercises like jumping jacks and push-ups. Then he’d sponge himself off in his sink. Later in the day Graham went into a deep meditative state, pretending to visit his mum and other family members.
Vietnam prisoner of war Tom Moe didn’t see, hear, or talk to another American for months during his captivity, according his account in Notre Dame Magazine.
During his time as a POW, he made sure his mind was always occupied. He designed and built 10 houses in his mind, he wrote. And he constantly made lists — ticking off candy bars, countries, and the capitals of those countries.
“What you learn is, you are your own best friend,” Graves said. He literally talked to himself about what he would do when he got out of solitary.
Graves also “played tricks with” himself to find a mental escape. He asked friends on the outside to take scenic photographs throughout the day, as though they were spending time with him. They’d write him letters and send along the pictures. “I had to find life through my letters,” Graves said.
Graham and Graves didn’t become psychotic in solitary like some other inmates, perhaps in part because of these coping mechanisms. They didn’t kill themselves.
But they say their past lives in solitary still haunt them, even now that they’re free. It can be tough to deal with people after years and years alone, Graves said.
“I was a people person before,” Graves told BI. “Now I’m kind of a loner.”