Virtual Reality Experience Takes You Inside Solitary Confinement
Robert De Niro recently attended a VR Storyscapes event which was at the Tribeca Film Festival, that he helped to found. One of the booths had a man named Johnny Perez, a former prison inmate who lived in solitary confinement for three whole years.
Perez pulled De Niro when he walked by and asked De Niro if he would sit down inside of a mock cell with a VR headset that recreates the intense experience of being in a hopeless concrete room that’s ever so lonely. That room of course being solitary confinement.
Even though there were several photographers, fans and managers around him, he decided to take Perez up on the offer. He sat in the room alone with a VR headset for 9 minutes. He experienced what’s called “6X9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement”. The experience was developed by Francesca Panetta who works for The Guardian with the help of Lindsay Poulton, whose a documentary filmmaker.
In order to recreate the solitary confinement experience, Panetta interviewed 1 woman and 6 men who used to be inmates that lived in solitary confinement in New York and California prisons for time ranging from 8 months to 18 years.
Panetta spoke with 2 psychologists as well. They helped provide information as to the emotional and mental effects of being alone for 23 hours in a day. Panetta created the audio story and The Mill, a VFX studio, created the visual environment inside of the cell. Since September they’ve been tweaking the experience.
The Mill’s Jarrad Vladich, said, “Once we had a cell built, it was all about understanding what you want to experience and how that audio can then become a story. For what some people might think is a long experience, it actually goes quite quickly, while at the same time feeling like you want to get out of there straight away.”
80,000 to 100,000 inmates are placed into solitary confinement in prisons in the United States. The prions are confined inside their cells typically for 22 to 23 hours every day. All they can do is memorize anything wrong with the walls, clean themselves in their tiny sink and try to think about family members and friends. It’s a type of discipline that’s intense and tortuous and as noted in “6X9”, it actually doesn’t take a lot for a prisoner to be placed into solitary confinement. If they have contraband, rip a towel or don’t eat, those are all reasons they can be placed in solitary confinement. And there are many other reasons as well.
Some prisoners even act out while they’re next to guards so that they can get some sort of acknowledgement from another person as they’re so sick of being alone.
“6X9” shows how intense solitary confinement is for people who otherwise, thankfully, wouldn’t know. The user is able to hear voice overs of inmates and psychologists that have been interviewed while looking around a gross tiny cell. Also, statistics and facts appear and then fade away, in the cells virtual walls. A shorter version of “6X9” was shown at the Sundance Film Festival this past February, however Tribeca Film Festival was the first time that people could be in the experience for the entire 9 minutes.
Panetta said, “I think people are really shocked by how easy it is to get into solitary confinement and how long you can be in there for,” she says. “I think there is just a lack of knowledge around the subject, and people have been horrified by what it feels like to be in there. In terms of individual reactions, [we have seen] everything from people crying to people just sitting there calmly.”
Vladich said, “When people get out, they enjoy a bit of quiet time. There’s a climax to the experience, and then there’s a subtle exit as well. What we want is for people to be coming out thinking about what they’ve seen and what was written on the walls.”
“6X9”’ showing at Tribeca is good timing in New York considering the festival also showed a screening of Solitary, which is a full length documentary highlighting solitary confinement.
Recently, the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) came to Albany (New York’s capital) to try to get Legislature to pass a bill that’s named the Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. The bill would limit the time that prisoners could be in solitary confinement.
The number of prisoners in New York who are placed in solitary confinement is over 7 percent. That’s more than the national average, which is 4.4. percent. 40 percent of New York prisoner suicides are by prisoners that are in solitary confinement.
Since it’s so difficult for someone to understand what solitary confinement is really like, the CAIC had 200 people who had been in solitary confinement (or been affected by solitary confinement through people they know) to Albany to tell Legislators their stories. It’s also hard to get people to empathize until they can feel or experience it, in some way.
Panetta said, “You can really put yourself in that position. We’ve written a lot about solitary confinement and made videos, but this is a very different experience of that subject.”
Maybe if New York legislators went to the Tribeca Film Festival and experienced “6X9”, they would consider passing the HALT bill.
The Guardian plans to release “6X9” as a free app that can be viewed with Google Cardboard sometime within the next 2 to 4 weeks.