What sort of things happen to you before death if you are caught by the thought police?
The obvious answer to this is found in Winston's own story. He is imprisoned, tortured and "re-educated" so that his heretical thinking against the Party is wiped out. O'Brien redefines, or more precisely, obliterates the concept of objective reality for Winston, convincing him that the evidence of his own senses is invalid if the Party tells him so. In other words, just as in the phrases we have ourselves heard in political discourse recently, the Party has instructed him in their "alternative facts" and in their principle that "truth is not truth." Winston emerges from his incarceration a virtual zombie, a derelict with no meaningful activity in his life apart from sitting in the Chestnut Tree Cafe, drinking gin all day, listening to the telescreen as he waits for news of some great "victory" over Oceania's enemies.
For most of those arrested for Thoughtcrime, there is evidently not even this much detail of their fates. Syme, for instance, has been "vaporized," disappearing without a trace, never to return. We also never learn what happens to Ampleforth and Parsons, both of whom Winston encounters in the holding cell as all of them are waiting to be "processed" by the prison system. If Winston's treatment is different from that of the others, the explanation must lie in O'Brien's telling him that he is taking special trouble with his case. Winston is unusual and therefore worth the trouble of these long and literally agonizing re-education sessions.
"Brainwashing" is the conventional term for what happens to Winston. But O'Brien's reasons for regarding Winston such a special case requiring this make little sense, unless O'Brien is doing it on a mere whim (which runs counter to the machine-like, inhuman nature of O'Brien). That the Party would release a prisoner back into the world as a washed-out zombie incapable of productive work seems a purely sadistic act, without having a conceivable purpose that would serve even a totalitarian state. The real-life history upon which Orwell based Winston's arrest and interrogation was largely that of the Stalinist purges of the 1930's, as fictionalized in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. In Koestler's account, the prisoner Rubashev, like his historical counterparts, is interrogated, forced to confess to crimes he didn't commit, and then executed in the prison cellar with a bullet to the back of the head—the typical method used by Stalin's secret police. Winston believes from the start that he will be shot, and O'Brien actually tells him that he will be, but the execution turns out to be a symbolic one. At the novel's close Winston imagines that the "longed-for bullet" is finally entering his head. It is a spiritual death for Winston, because now, we are told, "he loved Big Brother."
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