The Imprisonment of Daniel Watkins

In a dystopian future Dan is arrested, not for committing a crime, but for a computer’s prediction that he might somehow cause deaths if left at liberty.

silhouette of a man in window
Photo by Donald Tong on

“Weekly visitation, Watkins.” The masked guard rapped the long stick against the bars.

Dan got to his feet and waited as the guard opened the door. He exited the cell, the guard following, the stick hovering behind his back the whole way there, another two guards armed with Tasers waiting near the end of the corridor.

As Dan approached the guards moved backwards, never letting him get too close. They made their way to the cubicle where a large TV screen was waiting for him. Dan sank into the plastic chair and the image of his wife appeared on the screen.

He longed to touch her, to see her in person even, but even face to face visits were forbidden. Sarah gave him a weak smile but he knew she’d been crying again.

“How are you?” he asked.

She nodded as if to reassure him. “I’m okay.” She was wearing a blouse with long sleeves and he had to take her word for it that she hadn’t reverted to self-harm. “You?”

“Still alive,” he said, trying to sound nonchalant but unable to hide the bitterness in his tone. This was existing, not living. “I haven’t heard from Bryan.” His lawyer was usually better at keeping him updated.

“I called him this morning,” Sarah said. “He’s still waiting to hear from the judge.”

Dan’s heart sank. The judge had demanded more evidence and who knew how long that would take.

“I put some more posts on social media,” Sarah said. “Most of them got taken down but a few were allowed to stay up and even the censored ones got some attention before they were deleted. There are people out there on your side, and Tamara’s video channel has gained another thousand followers. No luck with the TV news.”

The television news delighted in their preferred narrative. Daniel Watkins was a potential murderer, not an innocent victim in their broadcasts and his indefinite incarceration a matter of public good.

“What about that journalist, from the Galaxy Eye?” Sarah asked. “Did he write back to you?”

“Yes. Heavily redacted by the time it got to me. He’s interested but he needs to convince the paper to publish my side of the story. He’s been writing short pieces on his blog but his employers aren’t ready to challenge the mainstream story yet. I’ve asked him to send you hard copies of any further letters.”

Sarah nodded. “I love you,” she said, lip trembling. She placed her hand against the screen. Dan hovered his palm near hers.

They talked a little more but soon Dan was told to end the call. It was automatically cut off mid-goodbyes. He got to his feet and began to walk back to his cell. Rubber gloved cleaners moved to scrub the screen and the desk and the chair behind him.

Dan sat on his bunk, head in his hands. He’d been on his way home from the office when two police officers had dragged him off the street and into a cell. He’d been confused, asked for a lawyer, denied one. This was a matter of public protection and the normal rules did not apply.

He’d been allowed to phone Sarah after he said she’d be reporting him missing. She’d promised to get a lawyer but, as she later told him over a video call, they’d been prevented from contacting Dan during the first phase of his interrogation.

He was held for 48 hours initially, was forced to give blood and hand over his social media passwords. He was told an emergency extension had been applied. After 72 hours he was allowed to speak briefly to his lawyer, who was forced to sit across the room from him.

“It’s the new ICM software,” Bryan Fairfax said. “It’s been running models for a while now and making predictions. Enough of those predictions came true, according to police records, that they moved from using it to confirm perpetrators to catching them. We’ve been following the legal implications closely. But last week they moved further, to attempt to use it to prevent crimes. You got flagged as a potential murderer.”

Dan stared at him, mouth agape. “What?” he said at last. This was like that old movie with the ladies who sat in a bath predicting crime.

“It’s classified data but we’re filing motions to try and get access,” Bryan said. “We have no idea what they’re basing their assumptions on. They’re claiming everything from terrorism to domestic violence to spreading disease. They say you’re at risk of killing anywhere from one to one thousand people.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

Bryan nodded. “Because this is considered a matter of public protection most of your legal rights have been suspended. My firm is doing its best and I’m looking at every angle here. We’re pretty sure this is a test case to see how the public reacts before they fully roll it out, and we’re going to represent you pro bono here. Rollins senior was a great believer in personal freedoms and the firm is keen to be seen upholding civil liberties.”

It sounded like a wonderful opportunity for Rollins, Rollins, and Fairfax. It was less exciting for Dan, treated like a criminal though he’d done nothing wrong.

“I’m going to court in half an hour,” Bryan said. “I’m certain we won’t get bail though I’ll ask for it. You won’t be allowed to attend. They’re treating you as a high security risk.”

So Dan sat and waited. Bryan returned later that afternoon, standing across the room again.

“They’re keeping you for another two weeks,” he said. “I’m sorry. They’re asking for more data from the ICM. And they don’t want me seeing you again. Video calls only from here on out. I protested it was a violation of privacy but the government minister for health said it was, according to the model, too much of a risk to allow you too near any other person. The guards will be keeping their distance and you’ll only be allowed a half hour outside your cell when no other prisoners are in the yard, and to take a brief shower each morning after everyone else has used the facilities.”

Dan had been in solitary confinement ever since, meals pushed through a slot in his cell, his cell hosed down while he showered, only ever seeing masked guards delivering his food or escorting him to the showers or the yard. Two weeks had been extended to four, then six, then nine.

Sarah was frantic and Dan was terrified for her. She’d come a long way in the last few years, from anxious and suicidal to a self-confident woman who’d left her self-harming behind. He was proud of her and told her how it was her own strength and her renewed faith that had made the difference, though she gave him significant credit. She said he’d given her something to live for, someone who loved her and would never belittle or hurt her. He feared a return to her previous state of mind.

After the six week extension, with Bryan sadly certain that nine would again be extended without major new evidence, Dan was, for the first time in his life, feeling helpless enough to wonder if living was worth the pain. He truly sympathised now with Sarah’s despair.

If he killed himself however it would prove the model right; the media would spin it as him being a murderer, albeit of himself. He was getting desperate but he didn’t want ICM’s programmers and those funding the software to win.

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Dan wrote on the old, tiny tablet he was allowed to use in his cell, the only entertainment he had, frowning at the cracked screen as he typed. “I am innocent yet presumed guilty. I have had my civil rights violated because of a computer programme that no-one outside of the ICM thinktank has been allowed to analyse. I am kept isolated from human contact for 23 hours a day, every day. I am not allowed to see my wife aside from on a computer screen. I am not allowed to talk to my lawyer except on a video call which is monitored by the prison and, I believe, the government and representatives of the ICM. My name is Daniel Watkins and I am not a murderer.”

He sent the message out via email to the newspapers, the TV stations, various bloggers and vloggers and anyone else who might listen. The email might get intercepted by the prison or redacted; he’d copied in Sarah and Bryan and vlogger Tamara Maina (who’d been outspoken in his defence, the first social media influencer to take his side) so they could confirm receipt. Even if it went out intact the message went against the media hysteria: “Mass Murderer Prevented”, “Murderer Jailed BEFORE He Could Kill”, “Innocents Saved by ICM software.”

His professional social media accounts had been frozen after the waves of hatred began, accusing him of murder and wishing him dead.

Dan had voted in every election since coming of age. He knew politicians lied and exaggerated and he knew there were some corrupt cops but he’d always had an overall trust in and respect for his government and the law, and had largely believed people were decent and kind at heart. No longer, not after this.

He lay on his bunk and stared at the stone walls, remembering a time he’d been allowed to lie next to Sarah and hold her hand, to kiss her cheek, and to suggest they shower together before a lazy breakfast and a walk by the river before getting Sunday lunch at their favourite pub. He would probably never get to do any of those things ever again.

ICM was the villain here, not Dan. No, ICM was a machine, and those who had programmed it were at fault. But they’d never face justice even if, somehow, Dan could be freed. ICM’s predecessor, the ICA, had wrongly predicted an outbreak of a disease spread by horses. Millions of beautiful animals had been slaughtered, whole stables razed to the ground by public health officials and a panicked public alike. When other scientists proved with their own models and a battery of tests, that the ICA had been utterly wrong, people had shrugged and said better safe than sorry and the ICA had supposedly been retired, only to reemerge as the ICM, based on the same faulty code.

Dan was collateral, like those poor horses, or a test case, as Bryan suggested, for a sinister move to punish people on mere suspicion of future misdeeds. Both. Neither. It was the same result. Dan was a prisoner and would remain so, possibly for the rest of his existence.

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