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Angels Alone

by Sebastian Tiew

Angels Alone describes a prison set in the year 2035, where prisoners are rehabilitated through simulated realities. It proposes the creation of a third space to facilitate a rehabilitation program inspired by models of open-world role play games, simulation training and virtual therapies,

Second Life is a virtual world that started in 2003; intended to physicalize a space of the internet. At its height, it attracted millions of people from all over the world that voluntarily immersed themselves in this second reality. Today it has altered, contrary to its founding utopian ideals, into an imprisoning mirror of society.

Over time, Second Life began to lose sight of its early ambitions of freedom and expression, rather, it became a landscape crafted by capitalist mechanisms, political ideals and class hierarchies. It comes as no surprise that today; Second Life is a digital wasteland, held together by its loyal community of early adopters, pioneers and trolls.

Standing since 2018, about 30,000 users inhabit Second Life today. However they are isolated each in their individual territories, or segregated in their virtual chat rooms and members clubs. It becomes clear that the future of virtual worlds is in jeopardy. A possible way in which it might be saved is through the careful repurposing of some of its very fundamental values.

What is the role of virtual worlds today? My premise is that virtual worlds can become much more ‘serious’, especially in regard to rehabilitation and treatment in real prisons; could virtual worlds play an increasingly significant role in the future of imprisonment, in the form of digitised prisons? Before we address this, we must examine the reality of imprisonment at present.

Imprisonment in the most literal sense is a 6 x 9 prison cell. This space largely defines the life of a prisoner and is perhaps the single most important component of prisons. Within it, inmates are provided outdated television screens and old books to pass the time; perhaps an odd occurrence of a video console finding its way into the cell once every now and then... and so the prisoner awaits the long sentence ahead, physically imprisoned within a cell, but also continually distanced and isolated from an increasing digitized future, that one day, he or she might emerge from prison and rejoin.

  • Two of three offenders who leave prison return within three years and, three out of four, within five years – It is clear that somehow, rehabilitation programs and the prison system at large today are failing, crippled by a lack of funding and the necessary support to function at their full potential; this predicament is then coupled with an increasing prison population that is progressively difficult to deal with. Furthermore, the failure of rehabilitation may be due, fundamentally, to the treatment of prisoners that barely regards them as individuals; firstly the generalizations in perceiving offenders and secondly, the disregard for their personal characters, histories, skills and desires.

At a time where reinvention of the prison is sorely needed, can rehabilitation become a process sustained between simulations, in the form of emerging multi-sensory technologies; and the physical concrete walls of the prison? The simulations could perhaps be fragments of open-world video games, deployed as new platforms, in which a third space is designed to accommodate prisoners of the future. This reinvention would turn the very infrastructure of the current prison model inside out; through examining and then later subverting the model’s existing mechanisms and frameworks, in order to accommodate the simulated rehabilitation of a criminal, 20 years from now.

The prison can be considered as the purest manifestation of architecture and control. At its very essence, the prison cell is a room stripped and removed of any sign of comfort and familiarity.

The reinvention of the prison provides an alternative model of incarceration to this, by incorporating rehabilitation through the application of simulated realities and its associated technologies within the confines of the prison cell. Consequently, the cell is no longer the embodiment of control, a fortress; instead it transforms into an interface, or a portal that transports the prisoner to other places beyond.

Filled with multi-sensory haptic technologies, the cell silently observes its users while sustaining the virtual spaces that they occupy. Omni-directional treadmills are installed to enable movement, facilitating the prison cell’s expansion beyond the boundaries of its four walls. Its climate system manipulates temperature, weather and atmosphere. All the technologies integrated within a prison cell work in tandem as a whole multi-sensorial ‘machine’, that is programmed to sustain a multitude of environments.

Virtual reality therapeutics is a recognized niche in medical psychology that utilises fully immersive and engaging simulations; the efficacy of which can be objectively measured through empirical data that the technology simultaneously obtains while operating simulations. This data can be analysed, and used to identify cognitive behavioral patterns, which in turn could be used to determine a prisoner’s psychological state. Numerous studies have found this approach to be effective in treating a range of psychological disorders including phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The potential that underlies such an innovation enables the tailoring of much more precise and personalised programs to cater to the personalities of each prisoner, that compensates for the lack of physical resources within the prison. These same technologies are already being employed in classrooms all over the world to facilitate education and learning; signalling that society is fast approaching the time when these technologies could be employed in prisons as well, as a tool to educate inmates. Indeed, some prisons are currently in the primitive phases of such possibilities, testing out virtual reality as a tool for the education and reintegration of ex-inmates back into society. For now, prisoners are just beginning to feel the effects of such technologies, experiencing content that ranges from the mundane; that of visiting home or connecting with a loved one, to forms of content that are meant to affect a more profound psychological healing. This is accomplished through the ‘release’ of a prisoner into environments designed through the language of therapy and psychology, which activates the introspection of the body and mind.

Psychologists have advocated that while most people engage in their capacity for empathy by default, most criminals by contrast do not have the natural tendency to do so and were instead instructed and taught to. In a similar manner of instruction, virtual environments can be used to place criminals within situations that had previously triggered the desire to offend. For example, virtual reality can be used to simulate an environment filled with criminal opportunities or traumatic experiences, which could be used to determine the environment’s ability to elicit subjective craving and certain reactions that can be analysed in data such as emotional response, heart response and skin conductance.

Conversely, the inmate can practice and train their responses to the situational triggers of their cravings in a safe environment, the simulation of which can be paused at any given moment to allow for immediate reinforcement or feedback to the inmate’s responses. Have they come to terms with it? Have they understood the impact of their actions? Do they regret what they did?

Virtual worlds originally offered us a dimension beyond reality; the ability to escape and leave the boundaries of our rooms. Paradoxically, its application to the context of prisons might well offer inmates the opportunity for normality, allowing them access to an experience close to ‘reality’ that would have previously eluded them. This begs the question, what role can we play as architects in this process of transformation through the design of space, environments– real or digital– through the design of user experience and interaction?

Despite the fact that virtual worlds like Second Life are slowly disappearing, its components possess the potential that has already been partially harnessed, and should continue to be explored to improve the harsh realities of current prison models; shifting the focus of imprisonment over time from the disciplining of the body to the rehabilitation of

the soul.