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Some Prisons Are Using Virtual Reality for Reentry and Other Programs

by Matt Clarke 

Since 2016, Colorado has been using virtual reality (VR) reentry programs for some long-term prisoners. Other states, most notably Pennsylvania and Alaska, are also experimenting with VR for reentry training and other purposes.

In 2012, the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) was faced with a dilemma when the U.S. Supreme Court made retroactive its decision prohibiting mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles. The DOC has 48 prisoners who were sentenced to LWOP for crimes committed as juveniles. Many of those “juvenile lifers” are now middle aged, having never driven a car, used a debit card or even visited a laundromat. Since they were never expected to be released, they were not offered reentry programs.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling, in 2016 the Colorado legislature amended state law to prohibit LWOP and allow juvenile lifers who had served 20 to 25 years to petition for release after completion of a new specialized reentry program. The DOC contracted with New York-based NSENA VR to develop a series of interactive virtual reality videos, using the company’s software and HTC Vive headsets at a total cost of about $180,000. 

“Right now we have 32 lessons,” said program coordinator Melissa Smith. “From how to cook a hotdog in the microwave to how to do laundry. How to self­scan at the checkout. How to walk on a busy street. How to use an ATM card.”

With social workers on-hand for support, the VR lessons are reinforced with classroom instruction. Participants wear the VR headset and control virtual hands to complete tasks. The graphics are not photo-realistic, but nonetheless evoke strong emotions from prisoners who have spent decades behind bars. 

“We had one gentleman who did the grocery store video,” Smith said. “When he took the headset off, he had tears streaming down his face, and the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘What else in the world has changed?’” 

None of Colorado’s juvenile lifers has yet been released. Nine male prisoners at the Fremont Correctional Facility were enrolled in the VR reentry program’s initial class in 2018, all convicted of violent crimes as juveniles. They can petition for release only after completing the program in 2021, so that is the earliest point at which its effectiveness can be evaluated. Nonetheless, Smith said officials from Florida, Oklahoma and Virginia have expressed an interest in the program. 

Since the Supreme Court abolished LWOP for juvenile offenders, 28 states have had to amend their laws to comply – meaning all of them have populations of juvenile lifers who will need reentry services.

Pennsylvania has 518 juvenile lifers, more than any other state. In 2016, it began giving them reentry classes and using NSENA VR to let them virtually tour the halfway house where they will go after being released. As of March 2018, over 100 of the prisoners had been freed and those who had the opportunity to use VR reported less anxiety associated with the change in their living situation.

Alaska’s prison system implemented a VR pilot program to help prisoners cope with the long dark winters in the far north. It is only available at the state’s sole maximum-security facility, the 400-bed Spring Creek Correctional Center. Alaska is working with the Colorado-based National Mental Health Innovation Center to study the VR program, which Morgen Jaco, the DOC’s reentry director, hopes will reduce the state’s 66.41% average recidivism rate by training prisoners in useful skills, like how to handle job interviews.

But VR prison programs are not without their critics. 

“Particularly for the cases for juvenile lifers, you have taken people at a time where we know their brain is still developing, and you have moved them from a community into a punitive corrections facility and treated them as if they were adults,” said Drexel University professor of criminology Cyndi Richards. “To think that a virtual reality tool is going to compensate for that approach is naive, in my perspective.” 

The initial VR product for consumers, Google Glass, failed to catch on when it was introduced a decade ago, but its so-called “augmented reality” technology has found a niche in employee training. Recent research by the University of Maryland indicates that VR may provide superior memory retention compared to training that uses computer screens. 

Proponents of the technology hope VR proves a useful tool to supplement real-world reentry services for prisoners – such as furloughs, work release programs, job fairs, housing assistance and post-release mentoring – as a way to reduce recidivism. That assumes, though, that those real-world services are made available to the prisoners who need them. 



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