When a mentally ill inmate was taunted by guards in a Florida prison in 2012—and later died brutally after those guards locked him in a 180-degree shower for nearly two hours—a security camera outside the shower allegedly broke down. A witness who talked to the Miami Herald was harassed and transferred. It was hard to prove what had happened, as with other cases of prisoner abuse. Four years later, an investigation is still ongoing and no one has been charged with a crime.
A new design imagines one way prisoners might be able to record harassment and abuse from prison staff: A secret recorder, disguised as a digital radio, could capture evidence. The recorder could also serve as a digital diary, letting prisoners document the day-to-day experiences that are hidden from the rest of the world.
"Hypothetically, a prisoner could record his or herself speaking alone in their cell or, in the event of a verbal or physical altercation with a correctional officer, could activate the record function and capture audio of the interaction," says designer Marianna Mezhibovkaya, who created the speculative design, called Chronicle, as part of a thesis project in SVA's Products of Design program.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, prisoners aren't allowed to have digital recorders. "After interviewing several experts who work with the prison population, I was told that recording devices were barred because they could be used to record and make public the inner workings of prison life, thereby possibly exposing corrupt correctional officers," she says.
After looking through a catalog of products for prisoners—all transparent, so prisoners can't smuggle in drugs or other contraband—Mezhibovkaya realized that the inner guts of a simple radio are essentially the same as a recorder. It's easy, then, to rewire a radio so the speaker can double as a microphone.
Her radio has the usual buttons (on/off, FM/AM, volume, and seek), but when one of the buttons is pressed twice, it starts recording. Another doubles as a stop button; a third is for playback.
"I believe this product would be a crucial step towards addressing unjust treatment of prisoners in correctional facilities around the country," she says. "While a journal entry might help a prisoner cope with abuse during incarceration, it will not serve as evidence in a courtroom. An audio recording, on the other hand, can be submitted as legal evidence and could potentially reduce unjust prison sentences, and demand investigation of correctional facilities and employees."
While interviewing former inmates, she heard about guards who denied prisoners food, ignited gang violence, and discriminated based on race. One person explained that guards had planted drugs on his cellmate, conducted a surprise inspection, and then punished the cellmate.
The design is speculative—there are a series of challenges to making something like this actually work. Initially, Mezhibovkaya imagined that prisoners would use the recorders for a simple diary, and bring them into the outside world at the end of their sentence. But if someone will be in prison for life—or in the case of recording abuse—it would be hard to get a recording out to the public.
"The system is rigged at every level to prevent what is inside from coming out," she says. If a recorder was smuggled out, and a recording was made public, guards would quickly make sure no more "radios" were allowed inside.
Instead of manufacturing the recorder, Mezhibovkaya hopes her design helps push forward the conversation about the need for prison reform. "We need transparency of the past and present state of prisoners in the USA," she says.