Many of us see time to be alone with our thoughts, to be away from other people, as an essential form of self care and a way to recuperate. However, if that time alone was not a choice but enforced for long periods and took place in a small room with nothing but a thin mattress on a bed, a stainless steel sink, a toilet and a towering metal door with a thin slot for your food, you can imagine your attitude to being alone might change quite quickly.
This is the experience of tens of thousands of people in US prisons who are incarcerated in solitary confinement. A prison will place people in solitary confinement for a variety of reasons. These range from committing violent acts against others and possessing contraband to things like having untreated mental illnesses, being gay or transgender, having different political or religious beliefs, or having reported rape or abuse by prison officials. These people can find themselves locked in a tiny cell without any human contact for up to 24 hours a day for periods that can last days, weeks, or even years.
Studies have shown that solitary confinement can induce a psychiatric disorder characterised by things like anxiety, depression, hallucinations, obsessive thinking, paranoia, and anger. But though we’ve perhaps heard friends or relatives who work from home express that they’re going ‘stir crazy’ or experiencing ‘cabin fever’ from not leaving home, it’s hard to truly imagine the psychological damage that could come from such severe incarceration.
6×9: A virtual experience of solitary confinement is an interactive experience created by the Guardian in collaboration with content creation studio The Mill which aims to highlight the severe psychological effects segregation can have by placing you in one of these solitary confinement cells through the use of Google Cardboard or a VR headset like Samsung Gear.
6×9 will put you in a virtual version of one of these cells, designed in the game engine Unity, for 9 minutes. This is an incredibly short amount of time, especially considering some people can spend over 9 years in these places. You’ll find yourself perched on the edge of your bed with the ability to turn your head and take in your unwelcoming room. Throughout the experience you’ll hear the stories of 6 men and 1 woman the Guardian extensively interviewed who have spent time in solitary confinement in prisons in California and New York.
You hear their real voices, their real memories. The aim of this immersive form of journalism is to show you how being locked in solitary confinement can have an effect on a person’s mind; it’s much harder to dismiss someone’s experience when you see it for yourself and it becomes, even just for a moment, part of your own reality.
I visited the Guardian to try the experience out for myself and it certainly forges an intense connection between you and those whose stories you’re heading. Even now, some time after, I can still clearly recall just how effectively 6×9 is able to recreate the psychological experiences described by the prisoners, really driving home what they go through in a way their words alone couldn’t.
When a prisoner describes how after a long time in confinement they began to think they could see a presence that would disappear when they looked at it, 6×9 really has you see a presence flickering at the corner of your vision; you see the cracks appearing on the walls that they describe; you float up to see the room’s interior from a great height as they describe an out of body experience. You interact by looking at items around the room to hear what you can and can’t do when in confinement. It has a striking effect.
Something else I think works well with the experience is that time and your choices are deliberately restricted. It will take several viewings for you to interact with everything in the experience, to hear all of the stories, to see all of the small touches as looking in one direction could have you see one thing whilst missing something else happening in another part of the room. This narrative restriction acts as a kind of reflection of the experience of a prisoner in solitary confinement; you might be alone but you’re not in complete control of what you’re able to do and this is an important addition to really drive home the sense of restriction.
Immersive journalism through VR is an exciting storytelling medium. We’ve already seen examples of it through projects like the UN’s film about a 12 year old Syrian refugee called Clouds Over Sidra and 6×9 is yet another example of how it can be used to create a whole new level of understanding of situations many of us could not imagine experiencing and probably never will have to experience. In the specific case of 6×9, there’s a tendency to stop viewing people as people when they’re separated from us in prisons and it can be hard, even in documentaries with extensive interviews, to get your audience to form an empathic understanding of what these people go through and their mental state. Using VR is a way to bridge this gap between viewer and viewed; as far as I can tell it’s one the most effective ways we currently have to show someone’s most personal internal experiences and make them liveable.
If you’d like to try 6×9 out for yourself you can find it on the Guardian VR app for Android or iOS to be watched on Samsung Gear or through Google Cardboard. If you don’t have access to these headsets, you can also view a shortened version as a 360 degree video on your phone or desktop below, but we definitely advise engaging with the full thing.