Four walls, each within a few steps of the other. A toilet. A desk. A bed. A solid metal door. This is what you see around you in The Guardian’s virtual experience of solitary confinement: 6x9.
In this app, the digital world collides with journalism, and the power of storytelling takes the user on an uncomfortable journey. Trapped inside a VR headset and a pair of headphones, a 360 degree video puts you firmly inside a 6ft x 9ft solitary confinement cell, where a prisoner can spend up to 24 hours of the day, for anywhere between a few days and several decades. For the viewer, this may only be the virtual world, but it’s the harsh reality for 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners in the US.
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Back inside the cell. A moment to take in your surroundings - the silence is overbearing. From the bed, the voice of a prisoner reads out a letter he’s writing, and it’s a relief to hear another voice. At the door, an inmate explains the meagre food rations you can expect, and you wonder how it can be enough to sustain anyone.
Shouts, pain, and background noise come from all around. These are not the voices of actors – they are recordings from Maine maximum security prison, in the United States.
Once you know each of the four walls intimately, and you’ve heard the stories that echo around them, claustrophobia sets in. It’s just a taste of what for many inmates can be permanent psychological damage.
Next, you take an out-of-body experience, where nothing is quite right. You float above the concrete floor of the cell, and the walls take on a life of their own. All the while, you have the option to take off your headset - your social media notifications still ping through and you remember that for you, this isn’t real. For plenty of others however, it’s a reality.
Throughout the experience, facts ink themselves onto the cell walls. The effects solitary confinement can have on a human being. The numerous, often unbelievable reasons that a prisoner can end up here: violent acts, being gay or transgender, being in possession of contraband.
The one thing you never see in this virtual world, is another person.
It’s an experience rooted in fact that rides on emotion. Is it the future of digital storytelling?