Virtual Reality Prison


We’ve explored and written about and how it’ll better your business, but if you still don’t know what VR is, here’s a recap. Virtual Reality is an immersive 360° video that, with proper gear, transports you to a new environment- virtually. As we mentioned in the post, virtual reality is the biggest asset to furthering businesses when used correctly. It has the ability to make a product more appealing to consumers, for everything from real estate to travel. From our research, we realized that this was due to the same reason marketing itself is successful- because it ties in our innate ability to

Penning Virtual Reality

There are certain journalists that focus on VR specifically to tell stories. When we looked closely at these cases, we became engrossed by them. Nonny de la Peña, a pioneer within VR Journalism, has spoken about why this technology works. In one of her pieces, she puts viewers in the middle of Syria from the perspective of a young girl, and a bomb goes off. Thus allowing us to experience what people in Syria have been going through every day since the beginning of the Civil War. This makes us invested in their struggle– we as viewers realize it could easily be our home being destroyed, or our children being brutally murdered, and feeling these losses through VR makes us want to take action to help Syrian refugees in any way we can. Nonny explains that people feel distant from these crises, but once they “experience” them themselves, even virtually, they become compelled to help.

Just imagine it: you look around you and are suddenly in the ruins of a refugee camp. You see a young girl singing, and people walking around the demolished buildings around you. Suddenly, a bomb goes off directly where you are. You and all the innocent people around you are all attacked. The people being murdered through the civil war in Syria are no longer a distant “other”; you are now one of them. Because of this sobering display of technology, we are equipped with the power to create social movements. Virtual Reality has the ability to move viewers, igniting a fire in people to start a dialogue about these issues, and more importantly, incite change.

Creating a Dialogue around Solitary Confinement

Our discussion around VR in journalism led us to discover that this year’s Tribeca Film Festival will be dedicated in part to experimental filmmaking, comprised of immersive and virtual reality experiences. While the festival is mainly dedicated to the work of filmmakers, the hub will showcase virtual reality work by journalists. One festival piece in particular, “6×9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement” captivated us — the experience is a collaboration between Francesca Panetta and Lindsay Poulton of The Guardian. 6×9 at a rudimentary level makes viewers feel like they are in solitary confinement with a narrative-based experience. While viewers hear the voices and sounds of actual inmates, the goal is to recreate prison based upon what the viewer would experience as the main “protagonist.”

The audio follows exactly what the viewers are looking at, and the creators even attempt to recreate the physical symptoms that come with solitary confinement. You look around and all you can see is an unlit cell with grimy grey walls, a mattress, a sink and a toilet. As sit there, you hear prisoners in other cells screaming, but you cannot see them on any side of you. The only thing you can look at are the four grey walls. You stare at the walls, and your vision begins to distort into different shapes and blurriness. All you have are the screams of others around you, your hallucinations, and eventually, your own screams. This is the reality prisoners live solitary confinement experience for 23 hours a day, for months at a time. We should maybe add a section here talking about what this sounds like and what the people experiencing the VR actually feel. Panetta and Poulton’s main goal is to force people to feel how inhumane the treatment of prison inmates can be, and they hope the piece can change laws about solitary confinement as a prison tactic.

More on the Prison System

To better understand 6×9, it’s crucial to understand why The Guardian has strong opinions about the state of America’s prisons. Surprisingly, it’s increasingly popular in the arts to address issues within these systems. A popular examples of this is the Netflix original, Orange is The New Black (based on a book with the same name, by Piper Kerman). The show has several moments that are painful to watch, as inmates are harmed mentally and physically, but the program depicts what Piper lived.

Other forms of art also address these issues. They create physical spaces that show the harshness inmates are forced to endure. One artist says “The prison system survives because of free labor; that lets you know that slavery still exists”, which is a large statement to make– but the research accompanying these types of  artistic displays only serve to back up these claims. Prisoners have no rights, and perform sweatshop labor for almost no wages at all. Since they’re viewed as criminals and not citizens, they’re stripped of all humanity. Maybe you believe anyone in prison instantly deserves to have their rights taken away from them, but solitary confinement is much worse than that. You cannot comprehend how traumatic it is until you experience it yourself. VR provides you the window you need to clearly see the way in which it takes away any human element within prisoners, making them subservient, less than beings.  No human, convicted criminal or not, should experience what they are forced to in solitary confinement.

Solitary Confinement

As a prisoner, you are at least granted the comfort of the presence of other people who are sharing your experience; solitary confinement rips this idea away completely. Even Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” acknowledges this innate human need for socialization–a driving factor for existing–and prison does offer at least some socialization to inmates. Granted, the prison environment is far from an ideal and humane one, but once prisoners are put into solitary confinement, the shred of humanity they are offered is completely taken away. Solitary confinement puts prisoners constantly alone in a bleak room the size of a horse’s stable.  Some seem to believe putting the “problem inmates” alone from everyone else  keeps the prison order under order, but this extreme isolation destroys mental health. It causes everything from severe depression to psychosis, making prisoners more of a danger to themselves. It forces prisoners to regress to a point where integration back into a social environment, both the rest of the prison- and the outside world, becomes almost impossible. Even if you only go through a nine minute VR experience of solitary confinement, it’s clear the experience changes you.  It takes away the remote possibility of hope for people who are already prisoners.

Okay…So What?

Stepping into an immersive experience–like the one experienced in 6×9 or the one spoke about by Nonny de la Peña’s–creates the same feeling of seclusion prisoners get in solitary confinement. VR even allows viewers to feel the hallucinations experienced in solitary confinement so we can empathize with people who are actually living the effects of solitary confinement. Just as with VR in marketing and other forms of journalism, the ideas behind this type of VR are rooted in emotion. The goal is to create a reaction so visceral, that it brings change to Washington and some element of humanity back to the prison system.