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Virtual Reality and Solitary Confinement Essay

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2020

Nowadays, the majority of the representatives of the general public all over the world are familiar with the concept of virtual reality, and many of them have already experienced it. It is a type of reality emulation that is created with the help of special technology and is displayed on a monitor or a projector screen. Still, today the usage of a virtual reality headset is gaining popularity as a way of senses presentation with a software-generated three-dimensional reality that can be explored to some degree so that a person can even perform some actions in it. Virtual reality is already used in different spheres, including architecture, sport, and medicine. However, its greatest potential is currently observed in the entertainment industry, especially in the framework of games.

The Guardian, for example, presents 6×9: a virtual experience of solitary confinement, “which places you inside a US solitary confinement prison cell and tells the story of the psychological damage that can ensue from isolation” (“A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement” par. 1). It is the first attempt of the Guardian to create something based on the virtual reality. This is a new exhibition that was developed not just to entertain the users who are willing to try unordinary experiences but also to pay their attention to the fact that such type of punishment has a crucial influence on the human psyche. In this way, it is easily connected with a problem that is faced by the society in a larger context than the virtual reality itself.

Solitary confinement as a punitive action and the way it affects people started to be discussed since the 19th century both in the USA and in Europe. At that time already, professionals would emphasize the fact that significant damage to offenders who experienced solitary confinement was noticed (Smith 442). Recently, this issues attracted enormous attention again because of the creation of new supermax prisons and the urge to defend of human rights (Casella and Rodriguez par. 17). Considering this fact, this paper will try to build a bridge between the mentioned virtual reality exhibit and the real form of punishment on which it is based. Thus, it will discuss the possibility of using virtual solitary confinement as opposed to actual solitary confinement as a kind of punishment in the USA.

All organizations that operate in the competitive market implement new approaches in order to attract more clients and strengthen the position. In this framework, the Guardian created 6×9. Its name reveals the size of a cell, in which a user will be placed as one turns on a mobile app. The creators claim that with the help of their interactive virtual experience, people will get to know how one feels when spending 23 hours a day in a small isolated cell for a long time. It can be used both with and without cardboard viewer, as the 360° video is available anyway. To reach diverse customer population, the Guardian developed the app so that it can be downloaded for both iPhone and Android. 6×9 affects different senses as it works with headphones, preventing sounds from the outside interfere with this experience and ruin the illusion (“The Guardian Presents 6×9 VR Experience” par. 2).

Professionals decided to create this app as they noticed that while this issue was widely discussed in the past, today the society does not pay much attention to it even though it remained critical. According to the report presented by NRCAT (National Religious Campaign against Torture), this kind of punishment was firstly used in the 18th century to “Dr. Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin and several Quaker leaders” (1). At that time, people believed that total isolation could make criminals patient and obedient. As this idea spread, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary that consisted only of isolated cells was built. Still, the experience showed that prisoners did not become calmer. Conversely, they developed serious mental issues that affected their behavior adversely. Realizing this, the Quakers officially stated that isolation leads to crucial psychological harm. They apologized for the utilization of such measure and stopped it. Still, the story repeated in the USA in Marion prison, Illinois.

At the end of the 20th century, the whole facility was permanently turned into isolated cells where the prisoners spent 23 hours a day. With the course of time, the issue only became more critical because of the development of supermax prisons so that today there are 45 of them in the USA. All in all, 25% of all American inmates (about 80,000 people) experience solitary confinement, which is the highest rate in the world. In addition to that, officials conducted a research study that proved that almost 65% of criminals who were isolated become recidivists in comparison to about 40% percent of those who represent the general prison population (NRCAT 2). Taking into consideration these data, the Guardian realized that there is a necessity to attract society’s attention to this problem and implement changes in the US punishment system. Thus, it investigated the problem, gathered related information and created a virtual reality app that is meant to criticize those punitive measures that are currently used.

For the app to reveal real conditions, Gary Younge, the representative of the Guardian investigated the practice of solitary confinement in the USA. He noticed that only a few printed sources that discussed incarceration conditions were available at that time. Still, they all mentioned the same items that could be found in cells. Along with other professionals, he got to know that people could be put in isolation for different crimes, starting with hoarding too many pencils. They also state that the psychological effects of isolation were found out at that time already. To support this information, the creators of 6×9 also referred to contemporary psychologists so that they received an opportunity to deepen into the symptoms of sensory deprivation that include “anxiety, panic attacks and depression to visual and audio hallucinations, and self-harm” (Waters et al. par. 6). The Guardian started to search for the solution to this problem, emphasizing that Obama implemented policy changes aimed at the reduction of isolated and mentally ill criminals. Riding on this wave, the 6×9 app became available for the general public.

The project is based on the stories of seven former inmates who shared their recollections of the maddening days. Omar Mualimm-ak spent almost 6 years in solitary confinement, which lead to the development of bipolar disorder that worsened with the course of time, as the medications he required were not allowed. As a result, he hallucinated and heard voices. Omar claimed that being in an isolated cellar is like entering a new world where no one can help you in the case of emergency. The man was even happy to have a fly in his cell because it prevented him from experiencing complete solitude. Tyrrell Muhammad’s confinement lasted for 7 years, which made him extremely depressed. He was not allowed to see the doctor when required one. He experienced emotional upheavals and started seen figures on the wall. Dolores Canales spent 14 years in an isolated cell and felt cut off from everyone. She told that experiencing solitary confinement was like being in a foreign country, the language of which is not familiar to you.

She had no privacy there and claimed that it was extremely stuffy in summer while in winter she was freezing. The confinement of Steven Czifra lasted for 17 years and started when he was a child, which made him even more vulnerable. He shared his memories with the Guardian, claiming that those days were exactly the same so that he was exhausted because of boredom. Steven also mentioned that the artificial light and fan irritated him. Moreover, his psyche was affected so that even today the man cannot stand when someone touches him. Marcel Neil spent 3 years in a cell, which was very fearful for him. He remembered that colors and sounds affected him the most and he was afraid to lose his mind. Victor Pate’s confinement lasted for 2 years and started hearing voices inside his head. Now he still suffers from claustrophobia. Johnny Perez was isolated for more than a year and reported the feeling of constant stress. He got depressed and was not sure whether he had lost his mind or not (“You Start Seeing Figures in the Paint” par. 1).

Revealing these stories in the framework of a product exhibition, the representatives of the Guardian attract people’s attention to the fact that the punitive system in the USA refers to those measures that do not just affect people’s freedom but also damage their mental health and lead to those outcomes that prevent offenders from getting back in the swing. In this way, they underline that solitary confinement is a torture that is a crime itself. With the help of this app, the Guardian can change the way the representatives of the general public treat solitary confinement and, which the course of time, it may lead to the prohibition of this punishment measure. Still, such changes cannot be made immediately. For now, there is a possibility to change an actual solitary confinement to a virtual one. Even though such approach does not alter the sense of punitive action, it is likely to be less harmful to the prisoners.

6×9 provides the users with the opportunity to experience the same environment that can be found in a read isolated cell but for a shorter period of time and with less critical influences. There is only a platform bed with a mattress, washbasin, and a toilet in the cell. The only “interaction” with the outside world can be maintained due to the door with a slot for food. The environment is complemented with cracks in the walls and sounds from the nearby cells with other prisoners. The creators believe that they highlighted “the psychological toll on those subjected to such harsh incarceration for between 22 and 24 hours a day” in this way (Davies par. 3). Still, a person who turns on the app will experience only 9 minutes of solitary confinement, which ensures that one’s health will not be influenced adversely. Such duration of the video also allows to emphasize the fact that while 9 minutes of isolation create unpleasant feelings, decades spent in such a cell are able to ruin human psyche. The user can hear the voices of those 7 prisoners whose stories were used as a basis for the app creation.

Professionals believe such method of storytelling to be more effective than others because it can reveal the sensory deprivation. What is more, the occurrence of adverse experiences is streamlined so that the users seem to experience hallucinations. Of course, these are more illusions than real conditions, but even they can be enough to affect criminals who have already spent at least some time in solitary confinement. Images and sounds produced by the app are rather realistic and they can evoke prisoner’s memories. As a result, one will recollect all those negative effects without actual harm. What is more, virtual reality is safer. A person is not able to hurt oneself while being in this kind of a cell. The app can be used as a preventive measure, showing an offender what consequences he or she will face if not following the orders.

Even when extending the duration of the 6×9 usage so that it has more influence on people, the usage of the app will be more beneficial because it does not exclude the necessity to spend several hours in a real world, for example, to eat and to visit a bathroom. What is more critical, the maintenance of the app in penal institutions will require the presence of other people who will turn it on and off. As a result, a prisoner will have at least several minutes a day of face-to-face interaction with other people, which will definitely have a positive influence on one’s condition. Also, it cannot be ignored that even though technology develops quickly and allows to create virtual worlds that look almost like real ones, the environment of virtual solitary confinement differs from the real one. Thus, there is a possibility that it will take much time to make a person lose a sense of reality. All in all, it appears that with the help of the 6×9 app, prisoners can experience solitary confinement without being actually put in that kind of environment. Such a step can be considered a bridge between the existence of solitary confinement as a punitive action in the USA and its abolishment.

Both the representatives of the general public and officials who are not willing to abandon the idea of putting criminals in isolated cells tend to be more likely to accept the decision to alter a real cell to a virtual one than to avoid this kind of punishment at all. Still, the usage of this app is likely to make them yield sooner. The fact that this application appeared and was entailed by the stories of real prisoners who experienced solitary confinement proves that more representatives of the general public and officials started to pay attention to this issue. Having an opportunity to experience everything themselves, they are also likely to become more involved and interested in the resolution of the problem. In this way, there is a high possibility that critical measures will be undertaken in the nearest future.

Thus, it can be concluded that the representatives of the Guardian evoke the problem of solitary confinement with their 6×9 visual reality exhibition. They underline that people who are put in isolated cells are tortured by the current USA system of punishment, as such measures affect criminal’s mental condition adversely and even increase the possibility of one becoming a recidivist. To prove this point of view, the Guardian referred to the stories of 7 individuals who have spent from several months to more than a decade in solitary confinement. These people revealed their experiences and told how their conditions and the way they perceived the world changed with the course of time. What is more, they shared some problems that prevent them from living normal lives even today.

The app created by the Guardian provides everyone interested in this issue with the opportunity to experience a 9-minute solitary confinement. In this way, it emphasizes the fact that such kind of punishment has numerous adverse influences and interferes with people’s rights. It reveals the way the current system works and what it does to people underlying that it does not reform criminals as it is supposed to do. Thus, this app reveals what is going on in the world at currently and urges people to start changing the situation for better. The Guardian claims that isolation should not be used as a punitive measure at all. This paper supports such idea and believes that the usage of the virtual reality app instead of actual confinement can be utilized as a transition point before the total abolishment of solitary confinement because it creates the same environment for a prisoner but allows one to be less affected by it.

Works Cited

“A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement.” The guardian. 2016, Web.

Casella, Jean, and Sal Rodriguez. The guardian. 2016, Web.

Davies, Caroline. The guardian. 2016, Web.

NRCAT. NRCAT, 2012, Web.

Smith, Peter. “The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates: A Brief History and Review of the Literature.” Crime and Justice, vol. 34, no. 1, 2006, pp. 441-528.

Virtualrealityreporter, 2016, Web.

Waters, David, et al. The guardian. 2016, Web.

The guardian. 2016, Web.

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