Georgetown’s Prisons & Justice Initiative Uses VR to Show Reality of Solitary Confinement

WASHINGTON — The question about what to actually do with virtual reality (VR) has loomed over the technology industries for more than 20 years. Last week, however, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) found an application for VR designed to engender sympathies for those who have faced or are facing solitary confinement. On the Jan.1 6 and 17, the organization provided VR goggles to members of the public and press so that viewers could experience firsthand, virtually speaking, the experience of imprisonment in a solitary confinement cell.

Featured as part of Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, the nine-minute VR experience is narrated by experts and formerly incarcerated individuals. During the exhibit, Marcus Lilly (a recently released community outreach coordinator, current college student and former student in the Georgetown-Jessup “Prison Reform Project” class) and  Sekwan Merritt (an electrician, criminal justice reform advocate, and former college student while incarcerated) were present to facilitate the VR experience and answer questions based on their research and experience.

The Prisons and Justice Initiative also hosted a conversation on solitary confinement, “Solitary Confinement and the Threat to Human Dignity,” moderated by Marc Howard, director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative. Panelists included Johnny Perez, director of the U.S. Prisons Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture; Cheleta Tuckson, a postal service worker, motivational speaker and founding member of The W.I.R.E. (Women Involved in Reentry Efforts); as well as Lilly and Merritt.

The panel is a continuation of Georgetown’s efforts to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through the University’s MLK Initiative, a series of events, both singular and ongoing, that reflect on Dr. King’s legacy. Dr. King wrote the seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail” while in solitary confinement, according to a statement.

The event marked the launch of a two-week exhibit in Georgetown’s ICC Galleria of a replica solitary confinement cell that NRCAT tours throughout the country (see video above) and will remain in place until the evening of Jan. 30.