As many of you may already know, June is a very special month. That is because it is Torture Awareness Month – a time when human rights advocates, champions of social justice and faith organizations throughout the world commemorate the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). CAT now has 159 state parties, including the U.S., committed to standing in opposition to torture.
To those who have stood witness to or personally experienced the insidious and lasting effects that solitary confinement can have on an individual’s psyche there is no question that prolonged isolation amounts to torture. In 2011, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez, issued the first global report on solitary confinement. The report concluded that indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement over 15 days amounted to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and that solitary confinement should never be used on youth and those with mental disabilities. In October 2015, the United Nations adopted the Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners, the “Mandela Rules,” which integrate the findings of the Special Rapporteur’s report.
The record is clear – solitary confinement is torture. Solitary confinement has consistently been described as a “living hell” by those who have been previously confined in extreme isolation there. Human rights reports have revealed what this hell actually entails: extremely small cells with a concrete slab for a bed, no windows, no social interaction, no reading or writing materials, and almost no contact with the outside world, for 22-24 hours a day, every day. Often described as a “prison within a prison,” by its very nature, solitary confinement is hidden from the world; tucked away in the dark recesses of our justice system.
Although solitary confinement is a common practice in the U.S., with 80,000 – 100,000 prisoners held in isolation on any given day, most of us have never been in a prison and cannot imagine what being in solitary confinement is really like. But now - using virtual reality - advocacy groups are bringing the realities of solitary confinement to the public in a way that was previously impossible.
This past Memorial Day weekend The National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s (NRCAT) Ron Stief and T.C. Morrow were with the Islamic Circle of North America for their Annual Convention, which was held in Baltimore, MD. At the convention, NRCAT utilized virtual reality as another way to allow people to really see what it would be like to be held in isolation. With over 20,000 attendees at the event, NRCAT, in partnership with Solitary Watch, had a phenomenal trial run of using The Guardian’s 6x9, a virtual reality solitary confinement experience. 6x9 is a mobile app developed by The Guardian, in consultation with survivors of solitary confinement, that gives users a taste of it would like be like to live in a cell measuring only 6x9 feet. The app features the haunting experiences of seven former inmates subjected to extended periods in isolation.
Sarah McKay, who worked the event, was deeply moved by the experience. “Describing this experience as powerful and moving seems incomplete,” Sarah said, “I have never experienced or witnessed anything like it.” As for the hundreds of individuals who partook in the virtual reality experience, Sarah recalls how “every single person was shaken and impacted by what they saw and experienced.” She attributed the success of the solitary confinement virtual reality experience to the fact that it was such a personal experience. “The person affected is no longer a nameless, faceless criminal. It is you. It is a living, breathing human being. And when it becomes a living, breathing human being with thoughts, feelings, and dignity who is experiencing the injustice of solitary confinement, it shakes us awake to the horror of it all.”
The dynamic, new technology also seemed to really resonate with youth. Ron Stief recalled one parent telling him, “you have found a way to reach our young people in a language that they understand.” NRCAT will next take the virtual reality set-up to the UCC’s National Youth Event in Orlando this summer.
Henry David Thoreau once said, “could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” With virtual reality, we are in a small way achieving such a miracle. And the potential of virtual reality is enormous. An estimated 800 people used the Guardian’s virtual reality software at the ICNA-MAS Convention over Memorial Day weekend. Its tremendous popularity, coupled with the fact that the technology itself is easily portable, means that there are no limits to the people it can influence and the potential change it can inspire. We encourage anyone who is interested in experiencing the virtual reality isolation cell to order a cardboard viewer and download the Guardian’s 6x9 mobile app using their mobile device. And most importantly, to share that experience with friends and family so that we can continue to share the graphic, stark reality that solitary confinement is torture.