For quite some time now, I have been interested in prison systems and their role in modern day societies. I am appalled by the practice of arbitrarily sending inmate to Solitary Housing Units. The SHUs have tiny, concrete cells with a bed, a sink, and a hole in the corner (for urination and defecation). Each inmate is allowed a particular number of personal photographs, limited reading material, and prison-issued personal gear. The long-term and short term effects of this practice are well documented- what compounds it is the lack of accountability on the part of the authorities. There are no mechanisms in place to monitor the people sent to SHU- often resulting in long years spent in isolation that completely alter the individual.
As a part of our coursework, we were supposed to choose an idea and see how it manifested itself in different forms. The purpose was to develop a perspective on how the form can alter/ modify the same idea. The different forms this project took helped me explore and eventually understand the nuances about SHUs.
Keywords: Social commentary, Critical design
Project Type: Individual, done as a part of coursework.
For the 1D manifestation, I wrote a snippet from a prisoner's perspective. It didn't dwell on the specifics or reveal personal information. I wanted to stay away from a structured, organized narrative to create one where thoughts bled into each other.
The inmate occupies space, is a physical entity and yet their life holds no meaning. Unless we look closer and realize that the broken body actually cages an unyielding spirit. The story, at first glance, seems like a string of characters, until you decide to spend time with it and make sense of it.
"Time is a strange thing. At times it feels like a real, visceral entity -one that thickens, solidifies and rises like a lump in my throat. All those missed years, wasted opportunities and broken dreams. All that time but nothing to show for it. Mine feels like a spirit in an invisible body that takes space but isn’t seen or heard. There are voices-whispers and screams and sobs. Agony- raw, grating, unrelenting- a cycle of despair that plays on loop in the recesses of my mind. I have learned to carry the crushing grief on my shoulders, and yet every once in a while I can’t help but drown in it."
The 2D project was a critical art piece that conveyed the frustration of navigating the prison system. I wanted to expose the illusion of choice the inmates are faced with. Solitary confinement, too often, is not regulated by a set of clearly defined rules; instead, it becomes a space where power dynamics take center stage. Personal connections, preferences, and attitudes override the necessary objectivity that prison structures should possess.
The first screen instructs one to click on the screen. No matter how many times one clicks, it doesn't progress to the next screen. After 30 seconds, it automatically does.
Here, the visitor is inundated with a lot of data. The main premise is that a series of questions are posed and the individual has to enter the answers. There are three possible input boxes.
On clicking the first, they immediately lose. The second lets them type an answer, but the computer insert its own characters. The third will let them type the answer but not submit it. There are two countdown timers that display different times to symbolize that time moves differently in the SHU than it does outside it. I used the Arial font and deliberately made the navigation confusing.
As I spent more time conceptualizing, I started envisioning an exhibit “The Lost Voices”, built around the individuals who are spending their lives in solitary confinement. The 2D expression could be displayed in the same space.
My 3D form, a part of the same exhibit was an abstract deconstruction of the prison cell. We often take our freedom for granted. Every day, we encounter new people, objects and surroundings. We touch, feel, hear, taste, explore, observe, create. Our senses are exposed to different stimuli. In a prison cell, the prisoners only sense a limited number of things, their experience remains confined to certain tactile and auditory stimulation.
As I was working on different forms, I was thinking of ways in which I could be true to what I wanted to do- I realized there were two distinct means- By trying to recreate the experience a prisoner goes through or by giving them an opportunity to say what they had to.
For the 4D form, I decided to work on a small scale prototype of an art installation. Prisoners would create art for this project. This was an outtake from our class feedback the week prior. There is a need for the prisoners to reclaim the narrative of their own lives, to take control and decide how they want their stories to be told. One thing I realized during my research was that prisoners are ingenious and use material resourcefully to create unique products. For this project they would be free to choose their medium of expression- It could be paper drawings, mixed media collages, sculptures or models. As the visitor interacts with the different artifacts, a pre-recorded audio in the prisoner’s voice would explain the significance of that artwork.
The critique I got the previous week made me reassess my project. Who was my target audience? Why would an individual be interested in these stories? Was my assumption that this work would generate the intended response valid or unfounded? I did consider modifying my project so that I could connect the prisoners with their families but I later realized that as designers it is our responsibility to do our work honestly, to create platforms that can spark conversations without worrying about how or whether that happens. I decided that this work was meant for each and every human being. To make it more accessible to the general population, the exhibits would be installed in public spaces, and there would be no entry fee.
I also wanted to incorporate a constant feedback loop, some avenue for communication to let the prisoners know that their stories were being heard. Initially, I thought of incorporating light- each button press could correspond with the bulb being lit in the prison cell. After doing further research I realized that wasn’t technically feasible nor was it legally permissible. Maybe one possible way could be to record the number of clicks and send them this quantitative data through email.
After the critique I got on my previous prototype, I started thinking of more immersive experiences, one that would engage the senses more acutely. For the 5D iteration, I decided to use the prison cell as a tool/ medium for storytelling. The visitor would enter a life-sized cell, a prototype of which I made using laser cut plywood. As they move through the space which would be embedded with proximity/ light-sensors, their body position and movements would trigger an audio output, telling the story of the prisoner’s life. Maybe images/videos could be projected on the different corners to give a more complete sense of their struggles and day-to-day interactions.