Black Mirror Should Be the Wake-Up Call We Need to Re-Evaluate the Eighth Amendment

BRIANNA SAINTE—In its history, the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been only been dealt with in terms of whether the punishment fits the crime and in a more tangible setting, the classic example being the death penalty for a convicted rapist. Considering how far technology has come, specifically in our penal system, it is surprising that the Supreme Court has not touched upon or discussed the ways in which technology could add another dimension to “cruel and unusual.” Surprisingly, a television drama series has put into perspective the lack of current case law interpreting the Eighth Amendment in light of modern technology.

Since debuting in 2011, the television show Black Mirror has progressively become a part of mainstream culture.  The series explores a future where society’s technological advances interact with baser instincts of humanity. No other episode better embodies the premise of the show than Season 2 Episode 2 entitled, White Bear.

The episode begins with a woman who awakens in an unfamiliar room. In the background, a TV displays a symbol across the screen. As she exits the home, disoriented, she finds a picture of a little girl on the mantle of a fireplace, which triggers a memory of having known the girl. Next to that picture is one of herself and an unknown man. It is from that memory that the woman concludes that the little girl is her daughter. After exiting the house, the woman enters a neighborhood, where she discovers several strangers filming her from a distance, in a zombie-like fashion. Adding to the eeriness is the onlookers’ refusal to engage the woman. Immediately after the character realizes that none of the strangers will aid her, a masked figure with a shotgun appears and begins to chase her. The viewers feel the character’s fear and anxiety as she begins running for her life.

While escaping, the character meets an ally who explains that the population was put into a trance-like state when the peculiar symbol from before began appearing on electronic devices. The ally informs her that a small percentage of the population was not affected, and some chose to take advantage of the immunity and hunt for sport. The rest of the episode shows the character trying to evade murderous hunters while still being filmed by unresponsive onlookers. Not until the end do we, and the character herself, learn that everything was an elaborate hoax and the hunters and ally are actors.

We find out that the character had been charged with the kidnapping of the little girl in the photo she found. Furthermore, the man in the other photo was her fiancé, who tortured and killed the little girl while the character filmed the killing.  After learning who she is and what she had done, the character is detained and is transported in a cage with onlookers yelling “murderer!” at her. As she arrives to the same room in which she awoke, her memory is wiped, only for her to relive the same day, again. And again. And again.

This, we learn, is her punishment. The onlookers are revealed to be average day citizens who purchase tickets to witness the main character experience this horror daily. Talk about taking “an eye for an eye.” Though many episodes of Black Mirror explore the dark relationship between technology and humanity, White Bear is unique in that a State actor was involved, spurring the public to question whether the events in the episode could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

While seemingly far-fetched, the concept in White Bear can already be seen today. Consider, for example, so-called supermax prisons, unique in their technological advances over other prisons. Though they’ve been around for years, case law on the effects of supermax prisons is scarce.  With the advent of technology, the tactic of solitary confinement in supermax prisons has only worsened. In the past, when an inmate was isolated, he or she at least had the short reprieve of seeing a guard who would deliver their meals or visiting a family member face-to-face.  Now, however, a family member can be viewed through a TV screen, and meals can be rendered through automatic machines allowing for absolute zero human contact.  With the detrimental psychological effects of isolation being so well-known, one can only imagine the effects on those in supermax prisons. This is just one in several ways technology has influenced the way we punish convicted felons.

It is truly the time for courts to consider the use of technology in our penal system, and begin the process of developing a standard or test by which to measure what is cruel and unusual in this modern age.

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