Images courtesy of HRWFF.
For anyone, it's the start of a nightmare: You are confined to a concrete box. Every aspect of your environment is out of your control - meals, even the overhead light. The guard that passes you your meal tray or accidentally brushes your arm as he cuffs and uncuffs you is your lone source of human contact. And there you stay, for 22 to 24 hours a day, for months, years, possibly decades, with no path of recourse. This is solitary confinement, and it's the daily reality for at least 80,000 of your fellow US citizens.
Solitary confinement has increasingly moved away from a last resort option and is readily being used as a first resort measure in many states. Whether it be in response to true violence or a minor infraction, isolation is meted out, without restriction, regulation or regard for its well-documented, severe psychological effects. The men, women - and children - placed in solitary are in essence disappeared, made invisible to the outside, and eventually to themselves. And while there have been recent, small advances made, the practice, often under the guise of different names, persists.
6×9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement seeks to amplify awareness of solitary confinements's effects via virtual reality. Co-created by The Guardian and VRX studio The Mill, the project offers viewers a glimpse of understanding into the mental toll of extreme isolation. The nine-minute film, designed to be viewed via a VR headset or on your smart phone, draws on the input of psychologists and voices of those who experienced solitary (one woman and six men) in New York and California prisons, anywhere from eight months to nearly 18 years.
In 6×9, you navigate the tiny cell filled with little more than a bed and a toilet. A constant noise is heard, the murmurs of other inmates, the guards. Those sounds are real, taken from a maximum security prison in Maine. You hear letters written to those on the outside and gradually experience the effects of long-term sensory deprivation - hallucinations and disordered thinking - as they visually manifest on the cell's gray walls.
The project, available as a free app, is also currently installed at the Furman Gallery at Lincoln Center, to be experienced as part of the ongoing Human Rights Watch Film Festival. On Wednesday, June 15, the Festival will also offer a corresponding panel discussion with the project's creators, journalists and human rights experts to discuss the intersection of virtual reality technology, effective storytelling and human rights. And while a virtual experience of solitary confinement lives far from the reality, actual weight and toll of living through it, 6×9 is a necessary conversation starter - a tool to open minds and hearts.
6×9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement is on view at the Furman Gallery at the Walter Reade Theatre from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm through June 18. It's free and open to the public. You are asked to bring earphones to participate in the experience. The panel discussion, The Emerging World of Virtual Reality and Human Rights will be held on June 15 at 6:30 pm at the Walter Reade Theater.