For juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison – many of them before the advent of the smartphone, social media, e-commerce, and more – the prospect of re-entering society can seem not just intimidating but almost unimaginable.
Like being dropped into a foreign land without the proper tools to navigate or survive, re-entering society can be extremely daunting for juvenile offenders who spent much of their youth and adulthood behind bars. Virtual reality companies and U.S. prisons are forming an unconventional partnership to change that.
As part of a new frontier of educational advances, virtual reality is now helping this unique population – and others – adjust and acclimate to a world they are poised to experience for the first time in years.
Sentenced in the 1980s and 1990s as teenagers, most of the young adults now pioneering this new educational opportunity grew up locked away in tightly-regimented prisons while technology dramatically changed the outside world. At the time, the paths of these offenders and society would rarely have crossed again. But in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without parole. In 2016 the court made this decision retroactive, meaning nearly 2,000 juvenile “lifers” became eligible for resentencing and, possibly, for parole.
With a chance of life beyond the prison walls, the inmates needed resources and training to adapt to a changed world. Across the nation, prisons opted for an atypical approach: VR.
As reported by the Marshall Project: In 2016, the Colorado legislature passed a bill to create a specialized program for juvenile lifers who were now eligible for parole. Inmates petition the DOC to participate after they have served 20 to 25 years of their sentence.
Melissa Smith, programs coordinator for the prison, asked inmates what they wanted to learn.
“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.”
The program elicited an emotional response from inmates.
“We had one gentleman who did the grocery store video,” Smith told the Marshall Project. “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?’ ”
VR As A Tool To Fight Recidivism
So just how did something used primarily for entertainment become an educational training resource for such non-traditional students?
Prison officials began exploring the technology as a tool to fight recidivism.
Within a prison, an inmate’s schedule is highly regulated. Virtually all facets of an inmate’s life are determined by others: what they can wear, when they can eat, shower, or work, and who from the outside they can visit with. Leaving such a regimented environment and adjusting to one full of constant decisions can be overwhelming.
With more than 500 juveniles, Pennsylvania was the state with the largest number of juvenile lifers when policies shifted. The state turned to virtual reality to help its inmates transition to life outside of prison. In 2016, the Bureau of Community Corrections in Pennsylvania created a 360-degree video of the state’s halfway houses. Providing reentry classes and using NSENA Inc., VR allowed the inmates to virtually tour the halfway houses where they would go after being released.
Early results of the VR program in Pennsylvania proved positive: By March of 2018, more than 100 juvenile lifers were released and those who had the opportunity to use VR reported less anxiety associated with the change in their living situation.
While juveniles can be tried as adults, a juvenile brain is not fully developed. One notable difference is the lack of prefrontal cortex in young brains– this area of the brain doesn’t reach maturity until about age 25. As a result, juveniles enter prison at a time when their brains are only starting to develop significant cognitive functions such as emotional-regulation and decision-making.
The Colorado Department of Corrections contracted with New York-based NSENA VR to develop a three-year virtual reality-based re-entry program for its former juvenile lifers. In an effort to bridge the gap between the potentially stunted cognitive functions of the developing juvenile offenders’ brains and the required results needed to re-enter society, the virtual reality lessons help prepare inmates for stressful situations and allow them to practice the life skills they never learned.
In addition to Pennsylvania and Colorado, other states are also experimenting with VR for reentry training as well as other purposes. In Alaska the prison system implemented a VR pilot program to help prisoners cope with the state’s long dark winters. Alaska is collaborating with the Colorado-based National Mental Health Innovation Center to study the VR program. By providing training and prisoners with useful skills, such as how to prepare and conduct a job interview, the state hopes to further reduce their recidivism rate.
The federal Bureau of Prisons is also interested in virtual reality’s rehabilitative potential. For example, virtual reality-based exposure therapy provides a safe, immersive setting for inmates to receive treatment. Research findings are demonstrating this to be a useful therapeutic tool, helping people overcome anxiety, phobias, and post-traumatic stress.
VR Is Innovating K-12 Education And More
And while VR for former juvenile offenders may be a more extreme example of the synergy between education and immersive technology, it is far from being the only one.
Public schools are continuing to find ways to incorporate virtual reality into lesson plans to enhance the educational experience of today’s students – a trend that is expected to grow over the next several years. Even teachers are using it to change the way they teach, as they shift from delivering content to facilitating learning.
“Bringing science concepts to life with augmented reality, we can now use augmented reality to create a tornado, then bring the funnel right into the classroom so students can experience these destructive storms close up. Or students can take an AR tour of a beehive,” author Bernard Marr writes for Forbes.
Police departments are using VR to train officers to deal with riots and arrests, medical staff are using it to teach new techniques, and language immersion companies are using it to enable students to have real conversations with real people – ensuring a more powerful language learning experience that is more likely to stick.
As a newer teaching tool, virtual reality has wide-ranging implications for how education is practiced throughout America and also for the varied and non-traditional populations that can be helped by it. This is evidenced most clearly in its adoption by prisons on behalf of former juvenile offenders.
However, challenges remain. Virtual reality for many is still an expensive and experimental educational tool – with some trainers and teachers citing their limited bandwidth to learn it and integrate it into lesson plans.
Meanwhile, criminal justice experts also caution that a virtual reality session cannot make up emotionally or socially for the years of acclimation needed to help inmates properly reintegrate into society.
Far from being a slam-dunk in ending recidivism, this new education resource does show promise however in becoming an important rehabilitation tool that can encourage successful transitions into society for a unique population.
Daniel McIntyre, the director of the Bureau of Community Corrections in Pennsylvania decided to give virtual reality a chance in 2016. He needed a solution to help juvenile lifers transition.
“Could VR help inmates prepare to be in a large crowd?” he questioned in a U.S. News & World Report article. “Could we prepare them to do everyday common things? Things that we take for granted. Things they haven’t done in their entire lifetime.”
Proponents of the technology said they hope it can continue to supplement real-world reentry services for prisoners. There is still much to be done, stigmas to overcome, and many barriers for those who have been incarcerated, said officials who are trying to ensure real-world services are made available to the prisoners who need them.
Virtual reality, however, may become a valuable education tool and a helpful first step in providing the training and important life skills inmates need to make the most of their second chance.
– Maria Cuervo