Prisoners who have spent decades behind bars could learn life skills with the help of VR.
In 2012, the US Supreme Court declared that sentences of mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders was unconstitutional. This was subsequently declared to be retroactive, leaving officials with the issue of how to prepare inmates who had never expected to be let out of prison for a life on the outside. Some are turning to virtual reality (VR) for a solution.
Research has shown that VR is beneficial in training and education, and has even shown benefits for overcoming some mental health problems such as phobias. Corrections officials in several states are counting on this to help prepare juvenile lifers for life in the outside world after what has sometimes been decades behind bars. As discussed by The Marshal Project in a recent piece.
Danny McIntyre, the director of the Bureau of Community Corrections in Pennsylvania, had seen VR headsets promoted at corrections conventions and was curious if it could help these inmates. “Could VR help inmates prepare to be in a large crowd?” he wondered. “Could we prepare them to do everyday common things? Things that we take for granted. Things they haven’t done in their entire lifetime.”
In Colorado, Melissa Smith, programs coordinator for the prison hired VR company Nsena VR to develop several interactive VR scenarios which offered lessons on activities inmates might undertake in the outside world. “Right now we have 32 lessons,” she said. “From how to cook a hotdog in the microwave to how to do laundry. How to self-scan at the checkout. How to walk on a busy street. How to use an ATM card.”
In addition to the VR lesson, inmates also take classes to learn new skills before testing them out in VR. To help them cope, the inmates work with a social worker and participate in biofeedback sessions designed to help them overcome reactions to stress.
None of the juvenile lifers in Colorado have yet been released, so Smith says it is far too early to say if the programme has been successful. With other states also looking at VR as a possible solution for prisoner rehabilitation, its likely that more such programs could spring up across the USA.