White House’s SXSL shows what it’s like to be in the criminal justice system

The criminal justice system in our country is broken. Just imagine if technologists put their resources and knowledge toward solving some of our country’s biggest issues, instead of toward the next dating app. Today at South by South Lawn, the White House’s first-ever festival of art, ideas and action, I got a glimpse of what that world might look like.

My first stop was to 6’x9′, a virtual reality experience that shows you what it’s like to be in solitary confinement. Created in partnership by The Guardian and The Mill, 6’x9′ puts you inside a virtual 6-foot by 9-foot prison cell with just a bed, toilet and small area to put down some books. The nine-minute experience was designed using game engine technology and first-person accounts for the cell design and audio capture. Even though I was only “in” solitary confinement for nine minutes, it was intense. In the U.S., there are between 80,000 to 100,000 people held in solitary confinement for over 23 hours a day, which cannot possibly be good for someone’s mental health.

“There’s been lots of work done on what that does to someone’s brain and irreversible mental issues associated with it,” Zu Alkadiri, executive producer of The Mill told me.

With 6’x9′, the goal is to use technology to effect social change, Alkadiri said.

“It’s the perfect use of the medium to create an empathetic connection to a problem or situation that 99.9% of the human race never have to experience — thank goodness,” Alkadiri said. “It’s an important story to tell and this is a great use of technology to tell it.”

Another exhibit that stuck out was one by Justice for Us, which lets people step into the role of a judge and make decisions about how many years someone should get for a crime. At the end of the scenario, you see what the actual — usually grim — outcome was.

“As opposed to hitting people over the head with stats, this invites you to play a part.” Jesse Inman, the lead developer of Justice For Us told me. “The goal is then a variety of these experiences, like being a police officer, being someone awaiting trial, being the warden of the prison and what it’s like to make decisions like cutting education programs and profit and those kind of things.”

Another goal for this project is for it to live beyond the team and ultimately get it to the point where it affects policy, Inman said. But it’s ultimately about educating people around what’s going on in our criminal justice system and how decisions are being made.

“The majority of people are unaware of the brokenness in our criminal justice system, especially the people most enabled to do something about it,” Inman said. “The people who can do the most about it know the least. If we can give people the experience of being a member of the criminal justice system in America, that could help them better understand its brokenness from a very different angle.”

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