Pete Brook recently posted a report about a prison experiment in Oregon where inmates in solitary confinement are exposed to images from National Geographic in a space called “The Blue Room.” The experiment seeks to “calm the IMU’s prisoners and make its tiers safer for corrections officers,” according to another report in The Oregonian.
Let’s just pause and consider what is happening here. Let’s consider the carceral logic and policies from which the Blue Room has emerged.
The state has decided to isolate prisoners in bare cells, with only artificial light, in a state of near total sensory deprivation, for 23 in every 24 hours. Let’s not speculate why prisoners are isolated; I’m less interested in what behaviours land a prisoner in the harshest custody conditions, and more interested in if and how those custody conditions improve or exacerbate existing problems and/or create new problems.
There’s so much to take away and digest here, I’m not even sure where to start, and haven’t been able to approach it dispassionately. The images that Beth Nakamura presents are intriguing in their own right. There’s something eerie about an experiment that promises soothing scenes of nature, but instead has the clinical feel of the most dreary classroom and its myriad projector glitches (channeling some Foucault here). But I’m more troubled by the experiment itself and the role of academics. The person who came up with the idea (of course, there are many precedents, as Brook points out, of penal management tests) is a biologist called Nalini Nadkarni at the University of Utah. Maybe the best is to begin with a list:
• Velocity: From (what else?) a TED talk to inside solitary, i.e. the startling fact that an experimental hypothesis that can have serious repercussions makes its way from TED talk to corrections officers, bypassing all manner of serious academic debates on the ethics of this test.
• Sedatives: Why is it necessary to sedate prisoners with images? Is the core issue here the danger the prisoners pose to themselves, or is to about the penal guards, and why is it the academic’s role to protect the carceral system above all? Allegedly, the images prevent self-harm, but it is unavoidable to bring up the issue of who manages life in all of this bleak scenario. Does the inmate have any agency over how and where to live or not live? One might ask how this relates to force-feedings at military prisons, a practice that is considered to be torture by almost everyone except the US military. If imposing food on hunger strikers is torture, then what light does that shed on this experiment?
• Time: How do academics spend and justify their time to themselves and their peers? One might sympathize with the biologist’s impulse to mitigate the harm of solitary confinement (another form of torture), but unfortunately the time spent developing a visual palliative is also time that becomes instrumentalized by the carceral system to extend, justify, prolong, and cement the administrative practices of solitary confinement. (And it is also time NOT spent on dismantling prisons). Examine the writing of the Oregonian’s reporter, Bryan Denson, and it is clear that the very act of investing time in developing a sedative technology (be it a pharmaceutical or an image montage) is time that underscores the notion of the inmate’s “incorrigibility,” thus implicitly justifying the unjustifiable practice of solitary confinement.
• Authorship: Who takes images of nature and for what? How do images go from National Geographic’s possession and become part of the carceral system? Did the photographers consent to this usage? (I’m reminded of bands who object to the use of their music in war). [N.B.: says Brook: “Nadkarni, along with National Geographic documentary-maker Tierney Thys sourced nature videos. Many came from the NatGeo archives: Big Sur, New Zealand, Costa Rica, mountains, rivers, forest, tropical beaches, underwater reefs, roaring fires and a couple dozen other videos.”]
• Media architectures: A lot has been said in the recent years about a campaign to ask architects to boycott the design of the worst forms of incarceration — namely execution chambers, solitary confinement, and supermax. The campaign against prison architecture is noble, but unfortunately too few people in architecture take it seriously. When it does get discussed in public or in print, it is often a way to bring “both sides” —the carceral designers and the boycotters— into a visible debate. I’ve had a lot of issues with this “both sides” framing because the result is a version of titillation viewing, i.e. a “serious” version of Montel Williams that entertains but ultimately gives legitimacy to torturers. What the Blue Room begins to suggest is that audiovisual projected media is now also becoming a part of that same architecture business of incarceration, with many of the same overlaps of making incarceration more “humane”. Perhaps one way to approach The Blue Room is through the platform of the prison boycott and relate the usage of images back to many more forms of architectural and spatial control that perpetuate torture.
• Death: Someone sent me a clip from Soylent Green that bears disturbing similarities to the Blue Room,
Presumably the message with Soylent Green is that making solitary (somehow) less cruel is merely a way to extend the pace and temporality of death itself inside prison, or in the words of this friend, “euthanasia theatre lite.”
I’ll leave it at that for now…