Hell Times Five

The terrible trials endured on <i>Solitary</i>

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Sure, the nine contestants on the second season of Solitary were made to stay awake for long stretches, deprived of food, and subjected to amplified infant screams. But that was only the beginning. Here are a few other ways in which the players were kept busy.

1. Playing with her subjects’ sense of time, Val (the omniscient computer-voiced host) has each enter a cramped black box with a ridged floor, which is subsequently heated to a sweltering temperature. Players, sans watches, are told to exit the box after exactly three hours; the one who comes closest earns a pass on the next “treatment.” A couple of contestants emerge from the box prematurely, and two come very close to three hours. The others, however, express surprise when, after more than four hours, Val alerts them that the contest is long over.

2. Players are asked to stand barefoot on a board covered with wooden pegs for as long as they can. Says J.P., a 33-year-old Survivor alum, “It feels like someone took two metal rods, implanted them right underneath your heels, and shot ’em both up your leg.” Two female contestants endure the “footbed of nails” for close to three hours.

3. In a Flowers for Algernon moment, each player is given a white mouse in a cage to ponder as a metaphor for his or her own situation. In a later episode, they race to help the mouse escape confinement by piecing together a Habitrail-style rodent tunnel. To earn the 51 tunnel pieces, they must ride a total of 2,040 revolutions on a treadmill.

4. Players are asked to grate 10 large onions, an eye-searing task for which they earn 50,000 “vallers” (Val’s imaginary currency). Later, Val hosts an auction. Among the prizes players bid on is the ability to punish a rival with an hour of sirens, additional time in the black box, or the removal of something the rival treasures.

5. Wearing handcuffs, contestants are presented with a giant bowl of ultrathick gruel. (Could the key to the cuffs be in there?) Soon after, their pods are filled with roughly 100 playground balls of all sizes and colors, each of which Val has given an arbitrary weight—players must determine the combination of five balls that totals 211 pounds, 12 ounces. Following the test, Val tells her still-handcuffed players that a clue on how to escape their manacles may be found in a huge box crammed with enough packing peanuts to fill the pods ankle-deep. They search, listlessly, and nobody succeeds.

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WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

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