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                                   Can You Survive the “Hole” (Solitary)?  On Human Resilience

By Shlomo Maital    



 Solitary — “The Hole”

America has become a massive prison.  One person in every 33 is under “correctional supervision”. According to Wikipedia: 

“According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) 2,266,800 adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails at year-end 2010 — about 0.7% of adults in the U.S. resident population.   Additionally, 4,933,667 adults at year-end 2009 were on probation or on parole.  In total, 7,225,800 adults were under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2009 — about 3.1% of adults in the U.S. resident population.”

    Over the past 20 years, “supermax” prisons have become popular.  There, tens of thousands of inmates spend years in ‘solitary’ or ‘the hole’ (small cells), for 23 to 24 hours a day, for years and years.   Psychologists are concerned that long periods in solitary, in ‘the hole’, does massive damage.

   The May 2012 issue of APA Monitor has an article by Kirsten Weir, describing a  long-term study by Maureen O’Keefe and Kelli Klebe.  They studied 65 male inmates and 24 controls.   The hypothesis, of course, was that the inmates in solitary would show “worsening psychological health measures over time” and that this damage would be more pronounced among inmates who were previously mentally ill.

   Makes sense.  But neither hypothesis was supported by the data. 

   Conclusion?  Human beings are resilient.  Lock them away by themselves, away from social contact, and they will find ways to amuse, entertain and divert themselves. 

   Please don’t misunderstand.  This blog is NOT about praising solitary confinement.  Any society that puts one person in 33 in “correctional supervision” is a disastrous utter failure.  My point is, human beings are incredibly resourceful and resilient.  One of my earliest blogs was about an Australian prisoner, put in a ‘hole’ in utter darkness, for many months, who kept himself sane by inventing a game with a button he tore off his shirt.  He would toss the button, in the dark, then see how long it would take for him to find it. 

     Never underestimate your own resilience, and that of others, to bounce back from insurmountable odds and impossible difficulties.   By the way, the psychological establishment has fiercely attacked the study by O’Keefe and Kliebe.  Psychologists prefer to favor findings that prove how necessary their services are, rather than findings that show how resilient people can remain sane and mentally healthy despite impossible conditions. 

   The photograph shows the cell of a prisoner held in solitary for 29 years in Angola.


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
June 2012
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