Virtual Reality Takes Viewers Inside the Torture of Solitary Confinement

By Dorri Olds 05/03/16

The virtual reality prison attempts to capture the extreme psychological impact of solitary confinement. 

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Virtual Reality Takes Viewers Inside the Torture of Solitary Confinement
A view from inside "6x9 An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement" Photo YouTube/The Guardian

Last month, the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival tackled the topic of prisons with films like The Return, about prisoners trying to reintegrate into society—which won the audience award for best documentary—and the HBO documentary, Solitary, that raises questions about crime and punishment in the U.S. But the most gripping and unique experience came during the Storyscapes program via the virtual reality (VR) medium: 6x9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement.

Francesca Panetta, journalist and Special Projects Editor for the Guardian, teamed up with co-producer Lindsay Poulton to create a mind-blowing, visceral simulation of the experience of a prisoner in solitary confinement. And it's not hard to see that not only is it inhumane, it doesn’t work. Instead of rehabilitating prisoners, it destroys their psyche and makes them more violent. 

There are now 80,000–100,000 inmates kept in solitary confinement in the U.S. They’re sent to “Seg”—a nickname for segregation—and spend 22–24 hours a day in a 6x9-foot cell for days or months or even decades. Some are only let outside for one hour per day, but are then kept in what look like animal cages. Deprived of human contact, most suffer extreme psychological damage.

By using VR, 6x9 brings you into their claustrophobic and isolated world. You begin to understand how the extreme conditions can send even the strongest prisoners into madness.

Prisoners begin hallucinating. People turn on themselves. A prisoner shouts from his cell, “If they want to treat us like animals, we might as well act like animals.” There are high rates of suicide. Prisoners slash their own veins and smear blood over the tiny cell windows.

Aside from not caring if they live or die, a suicide attempt seems the only way to escape their hellholes. Gushing blood can mean a transfer—at least temporarily—to a medical or psychological setting where at least they have contact with other humans.

Thanks to a soundtrack provided by footage shot for Frontline’s documentary Solitary Nation, the background noise—deafening at times—is real. It was recorded at various U.S. prisons. 

One can be sent to solitary for disobeying an order, fighting, yelling, possession of drugs, or even looking at a corrections officer the wrong way. It’s chilling to hear one prisoner say that if you have too many toilet paper rolls, you can be sentenced to an extra 90 days. 

You can download the VR app and watch it on your smartphone through a Google cardboard viewer available for purchase online. Watch the trailer for 6x9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement below:

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.