Virtual reality brings prisoners and their families closer together
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections' virtual reality testing program is designed to help prisoners get started and also improve communication with their children.
Returning to a normal life is a challenge for prisoners. It is difficult for imprisoned parents to re-establish relations with their children after their imprisonment, for example. They only see their children during brief visits to the prison's visiting rooms while they are incarcerated.
Visiting an incarcerated parent is also stressful for the children. According to a Sam Houston State University study on the effects of prison visits on children, 65 percent of participating children showed negative reactions to prison visits, including anxiety, depressive symptoms and anger.
VR for inmates can create closeness at a distance
Instead of exposing children to the oppressive atmosphere of a prison, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) is trying a different approach. Thanks to a $680,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice, 21 Meta Quest 2 headsets were purchased and 11 VR experiences were developed to allow contact between imprisoned parents and their children in virtual reality.
For example, participants can talk to each other while exploring the International Space Station together. The appearance of the VR avatars can be customized to make the experience more realistic and personal.
Organizations such as Amachi Pittsburgh and the Public Health Management Corporation in Philadelphia assist children by answering questions about the program or the criminal justice system. Staff monitor visits via laptops and help parents start a dialogue.
Deb Sahd of the Department of Corrections explains that such visits from afar mitigate the children's negative experiences. The program is not intended as a complete substitute for real visits - after all, children need to be able to see their parents in real life.
Using VR to ease re-entry into daily life
In addition to communication training, the Department of Corrections program also offers VR experiences that show prisoners how to go shopping, use a cell phone or clean an apartment. Similar VR programs existed in the U.S. several years ago.
The DOC uses the VR training platform Wrap Technologies for this purpose. "The goal, really, here is good family and community reintegration," says CEO TJ Kennedy. Working with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, he sees a societal value in virtual reality. "And I think for both societal re-entry, corrections and law enforcement, we’re in a really important place where there is investment that can be leveraged to use new technology."