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Coping in isolation: Time to Think
Coping in isolation: Time to Think

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2 Strategies for managing time and space

This is a photograph of an hourglass.
Figure 5 The passing of time

I think of the mystery of times passage. There are minutes and hours which have no end: the eternity of the instant. There are many empty hours … endless days; and weeks which pass without leaving the least memory behind them, as if they had never been.

(Victor Serge, 1931)

These words by the Russian revolutionary, Victor Serge (1890–1947) may strike a chord with some of you. Serge spent many years in solitary confinement for his political beliefs. This quote was chosen by David from a book he read during his own imprisonment, to explain the ‘elasticity of time’ he experienced. Dealing with this elasticity of time is also one of the challenges of life under COVID-19 restrictions. Days and weeks may feel like they merge into one. Managing this time along with the pressures of life in new or confined spaces, alone or with others may require new strategies.

In the following reflections, Michael and David describe how they responded to their new lives in the Maze and Long Kesh prison. David had Special Category Status (SCS) which was given to those charged with political offences under British Emergency Powers from 1972, until it was withdrawn by the British Government in 1976 leading to political protests. Michael reflects on his experiences in complete lockdown in the H Blocks, during Irish Republican protests to regain political status after 1976. David also reflects on his experience of solitary confinement while in the Compounds. Each found different ways to reframe their situation, discovered hidden strengths and learned new ways of making the situation work for them.

Now read their reflections.

Reflection by Michael: Thinking communally not individually

This is an illustration of a man reading in his prison cell
Figure 6 Michael in the H Block

During the conflict not all people imprisoned succeeded in coping, or in coping all of the time. But many did cope, and many did for most of the time. So, Republican prisoners were not mentally a homogenous group. Just like all in society today. Much of the coping depended on themselves and the package of their individuality but the latter was also somewhat dependent on other support mechanisms such as their multiple belief systems – micro in that their girlfriends, wives/ families supported them, that God would assist, macro in that the Republican Movement was there to support them, that the struggle would soon be finished and the’ Brits’ would be ‘out’, that they would eventually escape and so on. I know many men who fitted into many of these categories. But eventually the initial thinking had to change, and men had to begin thinking differently. This will be the same today – as attitudes change with the receipt of new knowledge and general acceptance sets in. Some did not in the past and found imprisonment very difficult.

Mindset was vital and for me and many others this meant focussing on the political rather than the personal and on finding opportunities to take back some form of agency and control. Prisoners sentenced under British Government Emergency Powers and given indeterminate sentences were different than ordinary prisoners. We had normally been in jail for at least one year prior to sentence so were used to prison and routines etc. We had either had grown stronger or weaker as result of that year. We were certainly not the same people as who had come into jail a year earlier. We may have been in prison alone, but we were part of a community.

Several weeks now into that lockdown, many of us were changing our approaches in order to adapt to the new ways. Some of us, for example, joined the blanket protest [a 5 year protest for rights and recognition as political prisoners]. We knew the deprivations ahead – solitary confinement, no sanitary conditions, no visits or contact with friends, families and very bad relationships with those in control/power. This led to a oneness of goal, a set mindset, similar strong ideological grounding (based on a political understanding of our situation). We recognised the long- term costs/benefits of our decisions, potential outcomes and decided on a course of action.

The same can be seen today. At first people may be primarily focussed on their own situation including for their immediate families – more ‘self-centred’ perhaps. They may not see themselves as part of the wider community or society, with broader responsibilities. They may want to go out with friends, ignore recommendations to wash your hands. Over time, as it becomes clear to people that by working collectively, we are stronger, the development of a broader social loyalty may begin to kick in (instead of being imposed). This should allow that unit to feel part of the broader positive activity.

Reflection by David: Solitary is what you make it

This is an illustration of a man in a prison compound, sitting on a bench reading a book
Figure 7 David in the Compounds

It was towards the end of my time that I ended up on ‘the boards’ [slang for concrete/wooden plinth lying on the floor in place of a bed/mattress] or in solitary confinement. The cell measured 10 feet by 6. No TV, no radio, no books. Nothing. In the morning the screws [slang for prison officers] came and took out the mattress leaving a concrete plinth. There was no chair. The day was divided up by mealtimes. Of course, we had no watch, clock, etc to mark out time. Maybe that was a good thing. By sheer luck I had tried yoga in the compound and liked it. Now was a good time to practise. I don’t know how but I have an ability to lie on any surface and go to sleep. So, I was able to lie on the plinth and drift off. Escape. Sleep was important as it meant escape for a while. It also marked the passing of a day. We were allowed one hour per day exercise. Again, it split the day up...

Mental arithmetic was a good companion. I worked out how many times I would walk round the cell to do 10 miles. I imagined I was walking from Belfast to Bangor. Took a while but got there. Could I recall all the states of America? All the football teams in the football league? Of course, I would try and go over the material I was studying at that time for the OU [Open University]. Given that I was doing Psychology and indeed Criminology, which included prisons, this helped immensely. I had read of so many other accounts by prisoners that this helped me. Jack Henry Abbot’s In the Belly of the Beast made this stay look like a souped up Butlins holiday [British seaside holiday camp].

Other supports were; that I was not on my own and that others had suffered this a lot more than me. And a good motivator for me was bloodymindness. I wasn’t going to give in. I was not going to be beaten by the system. I was so happy to receive a visit from a Presbyterian minister. He insisted I sit with him in another cell which had no heat. I still recall the blissful coolness. He even visited my parents to assure them. My biggest worry was my parents. They had no experience of me being punished in prison. I worried that they were worrying. Which they were. On the very next visit my mum was frantic to see me.

My second and third times on solitary were easier. You can get used to many things. I enjoyed the chance of some down time. Peace and quiet. That’s good if your personality is that way inclined. I suspect others do not take social isolation so easily. Social isolation, like prison time, is what you make of it. The more you do, the quicker it goes.

In the following audio conversation recorded in April 2020, David and Michael discuss the practical structures and strategies they found useful for managing life in their ‘new normal’, many of which may be relevant to today. Now listen to this audio:

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Audio 2: Strategies for living in the ‘new normal’
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Audio 2 transcript (Word document) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Activity 4 What are your strategies for managing your time and space?

Having read Michael’s and David’s reflections and listened to their conversation, answer the following questions:

  1. What struck you most about the ways in which they responded to their difference experiences?
  2. What strategies have you put in place to manage your time?
  3. What new ideas for managing time and space, if any, has this sparked for you?


You will already have many of your own strategies for coping. You may have found ways of connecting to and being part of the wider community while in isolation and the strength this brings. Whatever you do, creating structures and routines to manage your time and ‘expand’ the space you are in, will be invaluable.