Sharon Daniel's "Public Secrets" is a flash-based nonfiction piece of literature centered on the lives of prisoners at Central California Women's Facility. The work uses algorithms and treemapping visuals to display boxes of quotes from interviews with inmates. As described by the designer, the algorithm takes into account the value of a quote, given by the designer, and sizes the box accordingly. This process is used to fill the entire screen. In the introduction to this piece, Daniels describes this problem as being different from a secret kept from the public – it is a secret we choose to keep from ourselves.
The boxes of quotes, each displaying a quote from an inmate, resemble protest posters. The layout and strong typography give it a powerful effect that suggests this and cause the quotes to stand out more. The interface is reminiscent of a board of posters. Upon clicking on a box, a user is faced with the transcript of an excerpt from an inmate’s interview, while the voice of the inmate is heard reading along with it. From here, the user is able to click on the name of the prisoner to see all other narratives from that inmate. A loud, echoing sound that resembles a jail cell’s door closing accompanies each click.
The treemapping aspect of “Public Secrets” is part of what it makes it so unique. The user is able to move between stories by using the “view connections” button or by clicking on one of the themes that are used to group the narratives. These include “Perception Management,” “Mind Games,” and “Biological Subjects.” This works almost like the hyperlink system the memex idealized by Dr. Vannevar Bush in “As We May Think.” Just as Bush predicted, one is able to pull up all related works with the touch of a button. Daniel uses this as a way of showing how common each story is and how interconnected the experiences of the prisoners are.
As the largest female-only prison in the United States and the home to all Californian women on death row, CCWF houses roughly 3,676 women - 183% of its original design capacity. In their narratives, inmates discuss the consequences of the prison being so overcrowded and underfunded. Healthcare is one of the main areas that suffers because of this.
"[The Medical Technician] said 'I don't care if you went and got the captain, I'm not giving you your meds"
This kind of maltreatment ranges from withholding of medications to physical abuse. Despite prisoners' complaints, little, if anything, is ever done about these situations.
Another much-discussed topic is the three-strikes law. In most states, this law imposes harsher punishment for an offender’s third serious criminal offense. However, when inmates were interviewed for “Public Secrets,” California allowed many misdemeanors to count towards these three strikes. This outraged many prisoners, who might have gotten extreme sentencing for three misdemeanors, like shoplifting, over the course of 30 years. This bit of information shows that the injustice does not start inside the prison, but rather at the courthouse.
This nonfiction piece of literature serves mainly as a persuasive tool for Justice Now, a non-profit human rights organization Daniel is involved with that works towards the betterment of prison life. The work uses the stories of prisoners to show the dangers and corruption going on in the California prison system, in hopes of convincing the public that this is an important issue. As one of the inmates stated “People – if they knew what goes on in prisons – would be horrified and would stand up against it.”
In addition to detailing the accounts of abuse and corruption in the system, this work aims to humanize prisoners and show America what the inmates are really like and how they are actually treated. Content-wise, this bears a resemblance to “No Seconds,” a photo series published in 2012 by Henry Hargreaves that depicts the last meals requested by prisoners on death row. Alongside the prisoner’s basic information, offenses, and form of execution is a photograph of the exact meal that was requested. Through images of comfort food, like fried chicken and ice cream, Hargreaves shows that the people we see as monsters are actually afraid of dying. Both pieces use media to promote a different view of prisoners. Giving Americans a glimpse into the personalities of prisoners may help to break down the division between prisoners and those on the outside that is created by more than the “three million dollar razor wire fence.”
"Henry Hargreaves." Henry Hargreaves. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 June 2014.
"The Program." Three Strikes Basics. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2014.