They tested it on mice first.
The researchers placed a TV screen flat against one side of each isolated cage. The test mice were bombarded with sound and moving colors 15 hours per day. Like prisoners, they got skittish and frenetic, hypersensitive to stimulation even when screens went dark.
When I was a kid, I trapped a beetle in a matchbox. It panicked and pinged against the sides unable to reconcile a white new world without dirt, familiar scent, or creature company. Now, when I got bored, I’d fast-forward surveillance video and watch a con ping against the side of his cell the same way. It’s 23 hours in the box per day here. And the lucky ones see the sky for an hour through grated ceiling as they walk laps in a concrete pit. We call that recreation.
Each cell is the same: a four-by-eight soundproof box outfitted with a water fountain-sink-toilet, tamper-proof shower, and bed, desk, and stool all of poured concrete. Each has a slice of window for light, long but only four inches wide, so they can’t get enough landscape to even know what state they’re in. Each used to have a black-and-white TV for streaming religious and educational programs. Now, they have HD color screens projecting stories cut for them the way a tailor chalks a suit.
See, the mice couldn’t stand the videos of the flowering fields or of mice families sleeping in a cozy pile. It just didn’t square with the reality of being raised in a lab. They didn’t know they could want for those kinds of things and gnaw their own tails in bewilderment. But, show a mouse a video of himself victoriously completing the maze, choosing the right lever, or getting pet instead of needle-poked, and he’d calm in consideration of this better alternate future. He’d almost be a different animal.
Once the cons got their own headsets and screens, the block was quiet. No skittering, no screaming against the isolation. There were a few guys, overeducated terrorists before their convictions, who read real paper books all day—and intended to do the same up to their afterlife parole. Otherwise, it was cell after cell flickering to an audience of one from day through dark.
I don’t know how they wired it. I sure wouldn’t be working in corrections if I had a knack for neuroscience. But, the times I’d put a meal in the slot, I’d get a glimpse of the screens. And I’d see what they’d see. Inmate IA335 watched himself from a time he had a name and not a number. There he was on the monitor with his hand in the pocket of a navy peacoat, kicking past fallen leaves. He paused by a bank’s doorway, but didn’t enter in. The next block, he glanced at a redhead with sunglasses and an idling engine, but he didn’t break his pace. He kept walking until he got to the corner deli. Then he just sat ate lunch. It looked like a pretty good sandwich. Inmate IA335 kept watching and the scene played out again, except this time is was a different kind of sandwich.
Inmate IA441 saw himself digging out of Lompoc, but this time getting past the razor wire.
These were films of the everyday impossible that gave the cons the imagined freedom to write their own endings. But it was not rehabilitative. At least, that’s not how it seemed from my post. The block was already eerie: antiseptic white and stainless steel, remote-controlled from the cell doors to the toilet flush, and well below the Maslowian threshold for human interactions—even for us officers. With the screens, the cons had all the self-actualization at the top of the pyramid without the benefit of a sound physiological foundation. Or, at least that’s what I heard the labcoats say in the lunchroom. There simply was no humanity to it.
Once their projected selves became more confident, ready to take more risks beyond avoiding their fateful crimes, some of the cons were taken away. Though we were told they were been transferred, stepped-down from Insula to another facility, I did not believe it. I imagined they had become malleable enough for another stage of programming—one in which their moral flexibility and glowing cortex could be leveraged for dark purpose.
There were inmates who resisted, of course. When the whole block was converted to screenware, the book readers in particular fought against the intrusion. Unwilling cons were shackled to the slab and the headsets forcibly wired in. The thing was, they’d made their peace reading about fantastical happy endings for others but could not imagine rewriting their own. After days or weeks of cryptic, looping video and animalistic screams, these resistors were quelled with the “ice machine.”
While I kept the con cuffed and chained in a barred vestibule, the technicians set up a chamber around the cell shower and retrofit the drain. I’d walk him back in, have him strip for routine search, and stand in the chamber as the techs adjusted the monitor. The cryogenic gas would come up from the floor as the con twitched and twitched and stopped. Like when my pet beetle snapped off a leg.
The screen plays on, mysterious and unending, unknowing if it manifests in the dreams of cryogenic sleep.
In screen after screen in Insula, prisoners escape. Until now, I’ve not been granted that favor.
The techs have set up a chamber for IA485, but he’s not yet back from the infirmary. So tonight, I’m stepping into the cell and stripping down. I’ll let the cold preserve me. And, deep in my mind, I’ll be far from this block.
Maybe I’ll be chasing down a mugger in Central Park. Maybe I’ll be slipping a flask to some regular in County. Maybe I won’t pass the C.O. test, and I’ll be pumping gas.
If I do dream it will be of more than a slice of sky.