May 5 • 23M

40 Futures: v1.10 Metatentiary

Jason Tashea
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40 vignettes about the future of criminal justice.
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40 Futures is a speculative fiction series about the criminal justice system.

Editor’s Note

This is the final story in the first volume of 40 Futures. I can’t thank you enough for following along, reading and listening to these stories. The response has been tremendous, with thousands of downloads in dozens of countries. I’m already working on the next batch, and I don’t currently have a release date. Subscribe to the newsletter or follow the 40 Futures feed on Apple Podcasts or Spotify to know when the next volume will drop.

As you know, the issues in these stories impact all of us, yet the “justice tech” community remains small. These stories are a part of my plan to fix that and grow the number of people that care about these topics. If you, like me, want to see that number grow, please share this series with colleagues and friends and leave a review on Apple or Spotify.

We’ve got to grow this tent of ours if we want to build lasting change, and I appreciate your help in doing just that.

Thank You,
Jason

Metatentiary

Jay awoke in bed and was pleased with his new surroundings. It was clean and simple: a desk, a chair, a translucent screen for TV and movies, a couple of windows, and a door. Pretty good for virtual reality, he thought. It certainly beat the brick-and-mortar prisons he was used to.

Jay was, in corrections parlance, a frequent flier. Having done multiple stints for armed robbery and burglary in the past, he was happy to wake up at Eastern State Metatentiary, a pilot program for the hard to correct. 

He rolled over and looked out the window of his cottage to see sky, grass, and sun. Getting up, he moved toward the closet where semi-translucent boxes hovered, each a clothing option. The boxes had titles like, “Jumpsuit”, “Streetwear”, and “Professional”. They each accompanied images of Jay wearing the respective outfit. Having been provided by the prison, “Jumpsuit” was the only option with a “wear” button. The other boxes showed prices, how much Jay currently had in his CTA--his Commissary Trust Account--and a purchase option in bright red.

Hoping to look more like himself when his son visited later that day, he bought the t-shirt and jeans “Streetwear” package and clicked “wear”. His body was immediately clad in the familiar outfit and his CTA shrank by 49 points. After a once over in the mirror, he stepped outside.

Having spent most of his life in a city or prison, Jay was taken aback to see open space. There were cottages like his own spread out in front of him and rolling hills in the distance. With no walls or guard towers, he assumed that this is what Vermont must be like.

“Good morning, Jay. Welcome to Eastern State Metatentiary,” said a disembodied voice from a screen that popped up in front of him. “I’m Michele and I have some updates for you, if you’d like.”

“Uh, sure,” said Jay, as he glanced around to see if the other inmates could see and hear what he was witnessing.

“Today is Tuesday, March 14. You have been at Eastern State Metatentiary for one day,” stated Michele. “You have 1,824 more days until you are eligible for release.”

One thousand eight hundred and twenty four more days, the number rattled around Jay’s head as he looked around the verdant campus. Maybe this time will go by faster than the others, he thought.

“Eastern State is a modern and humane place for reform,” Michele continued. “Records show that you completed high school. If you would like to enroll in a college degree program, please see Kayla at the education building. If we can provide you physical or mental health support, please visit Jenna at the medical pavilion. If you have any further questions, just say ‘Hey Michele,’ and I’ll appear. Have a good day.” 

“Alright. What time is it?” he asked.

Silence. Jay looked around and waited. Having never held an office job, he didn’t know how to troubleshoot IT. Waving his hands where the screen just was, he realized his error.

“Hey Michele, what time is it?”

“It is 9:06 in the morning.”

I have almost a half hour, Jay thought. “Hey Michele, where is family visitation?”

“Head due east past the residential area and the media shop and you will find the Visitation Center,” explained Michele. “Would you like me to project a map for you?”

“No, I’ll figure it out,” said Jay, assuming the sun, even in virtual reality, rose in the east.

He headed out through the residential area on a cobbled path. As he walked, he glanced into people’s cottages through crosshatched windows. He saw that posters and ephemera lined walls and shelves of fellow inmates that could not have been here much longer than him. At the boundary of the residential area was a rustic, white fence and the cobbled path turned to pavement. To the right, there were a few bicycles nestled under a metal hutch. With time to spare, Jay decided to walk. 

After a few minutes, he came upon the media shop on his left. The building looked like the old Art Deco style theaters that used to dot his hometown of Baltimore. The building’s sign, in Atlas font, was framed by warm purple, green, and orange lights that ran up past the roof. The portico was a rounded half-moon, like an inverted wedding cake, with bright bulbs leading to a ticket box. His attention to the building’s nostalgic construction was obscured by more pop-ups, like what he saw around his closet earlier that morning. Instead of clothes, however, these promoted the newest TV shows, movies, and performances that Jay and the others could stream at their cottages. A single episode of a medical drama cost 15 points. Another 35 points and you can see an action movie that was still in theaters. They had live sports, too.

He nodded his head and smiled with the acknowledgment that he would never watch a fight breakout over a TV remote again.

Then, in a smash cut, he went from admiring the polychromatic theater to seeing only the color blue.

“Hey!” a man yelled.

Shocked from his reverie, it took Jay a moment to realize that he was not experiencing an error screen, but lying on the ground and looking at the sky. Propping himself up on his elbow, he saw a large man with a goatee and shaved head standing over him. His round scalp blocked out the morning sun.

“Watch where you’re going, pumpkin,” the man said as he spat towards Jay’s splayed out avatar before taking a lumbering step over him.

Dazed but relieved, Jay collected himself and went to wipe the spit off of his shirt, but there was nothing there. He replayed the scene in his mind. Looking at his dry t-shirt, he hadn’t detected the guy when he walked into him, he didn’t feel his push, he didn’t smell his breath, which, judging by the look of him, was awful. He didn’t feel the ground when he fell. Even his decade-old hamstring injury didn’t appear when he helped himself off the ground. He straightened his shirt and walked a little taller with a new confidence that he couldn’t be hurt in the Metatentiary.

He arrived for his family visit a few minutes early. Sitting at a picnic table, he positioned himself so he could see the door where his son and girlfriend would enter with the other visitors. He was nervous, but excited. He last saw his family when he received his sentence, a terrible memory. His return to crime was a selfish act, jeopardizing everything he had built since his last bid, which had him two states away from his family. When the Department of Corrections gave him the option to take part in the Metatentiary Pilot Program, he leapt at the opportunity. While he couldn’t be with his family, at least they didn’t have to spend days traveling to see him. Now, at the designated time, they were a click away.

A door leading to the visitor center opened, and a small boy came rushing onto the green. 

“Ben!” Jay yelled.

As the boy’s head jerked toward his father his mopish brown hair twirled. A smile broke over both their faces. He came running across the grass and stopped short of Jay, who had his arms out. 

“Dad?” The boy looked skeptically at Jay.

“Yes, it’s me!” said Jay bursting with excitement to see his son. “I probably just look a little different because we’re in that video game I told you about. But it’s me, I’m still your dad.”

Ben inched closer.

“What’s the password?” He whispered.

“Yogi and Boo Boo,” Jay smirked. “Shaggy and Scooby too.”

Ben’s eyes lit up as he leapt to hug his dad as tight as he could. 

Jay opened his eyes and looked down to see the top of Ben’s head, his brown hair was shaggier, darker, than he remembered. He didn’t know if Ben had grown or if the avatar was just taller. 

In his moment of solace, Jay breathed deep to take it all in. Exhaling, he felt something missing--that faint, comforting scent of detergent, home. 

He pulled Ben closer and breathed in again, nothing. Jay took a step back and looked at his arms. He couldn’t feel Ben’s warmth either. He pumped his hands into fists a couple of times, as if improving circulation would fix the glitch. As if circulation existed at all.

Disoriented, he looked at Ben’s expectant and cherubic face. Then, his stomach dropped.

Pop-ups hovered above his son. “Multisensory Mask: Smells like the real world,” read one. “Haptic Vest: Upper body sensations never felt so good,” read another. Each was significantly more than what was in Jay’s CTA. Without enough money, the purchase buttons were disabled. 

However, he saw a blue button he hadn’t seen earlier. It read, “Rent”. Not even two hours into his 1,825 days, he was ready to empty his virtual CTA for 15 minutes of reality.

Pressing the blue button, the restraints on his incarceration loosened as he breathed in a more complex consciousness. While synthetic, the smells were adjacent enough to the real thing that Jay all at once noticed the grass beneath his feet, the sun soaked wood of the picnic table he stood next too, and the mix of Ben’s toothpaste and clean shirt. As the air shifted the melange around Jay, he sensed something else, transported to their East Baltimore row home.

Looking up past the facsimile of his son, he caught his girlfriend’s silhouette in high contrast against the mid-morning sun. Overcome, Jay began to cry, but the tears never came.

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Links from the podcast commentary

Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. (Dept. of Justice)

The predatory dimensions of criminal justice. (Science)

Louisiana judges get pay cut after courts collect fewer fines and fees. (Louisiana Illuminator)

How lockup quotas and "low-crime taxes" guarantee profits for private prison corporations. (National Institute of Corrections)

The company store and the literally captive market: Consumer law in prisons and jails. (Hastings Race & Poverty Law Journal)

Ezra Klein interviews Ted Chiang. (New York Times)