Virtual Reality in Prison
The prison system has become oversaturated over the past forty years with the prison population surging by 700 percent to 2.2 million in the United States . With an increasing awareness of civil and human rights, State Justice Departments have paid more attention to reforming their prison systems. The main problem that contributes to broken prison systems across the country is a lack of education opportunities for prisoners. More than half of prisoners are deemed illiterate and those who are unable to enroll themselves in an educational course offered by the prison are 57% more likely to be reincarcerated after being released . To decrease this rate of recidivism, prisons have taken more initiative in educating their prisoners in ways that will better prepare them for both working and functioning in modern society.
Colorado State Prisons
Virtual reality is one tool being used to reform the prison system. Using the virtual reality enabled headset, prisoners can see how the world outside of the prison walls has changed drastically since their time of conviction. The state of Colorado has been pioneering the use of virtual reality in prisons by creating and implementing 3-year programs for prisoners to have an opportunity for early release. Many of these prisoners are those who were convicted as juveniles and were given decades long sentences. As these cases are being pushed to the forefront of criminal justice reform, prison systems are taking notice of these cases and giving more chances for prisoners to change their sentences. Within these programs, inmates are exposed to real-life simulations of common environments they will find themselves when entering society again, such as the grocery store, the bank, and the laundromat . Many of these establishments have changed physically over the years, so virtual reality is able to capture the experience of walking and interacting in these places for prisoners to become more familiar with them. For example, the program in Colorado’s prison systems allows prisoners to learn and practice doing laundry by using hand-held controllers so that laundry can be “picked up” and put into the machine. One of the biggest learning curves for prisoners, though, is having to learn all the new technology put in place for these places to operate. Many of those who have been in the prison system for over a decade and were convicted at a young age were not present for the technological advances that have been integrated in the daily lives of those living in society. Thus, prisoners learn how to use credit card machines to pay for food at grocery stores and how to put set up an account with the bank to fund these purchases.
Virtual reality companies have been created by individuals outside of the state justice system who feel passionate about utilizing virtual reality to prevent prisoners from reoffending and relapsing. An organization called Virtual Rehab was founded by Dr. Raji Wahidy to help correctional facilities with their educational efforts. Virtual Reality finds it important to support prisoners suffering from emotional disorders and mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and anger management. These conditions left untreated can lead to prisoners continuing unhealthy lifestyles and behaviors such as substance abuse or violence after leaving prison, often leading to being reincarcerated . In order to help prisoners develop their emotional intelligence skills, Virtual Rehab contrives highly emotional scnenarios to put the prisoners into so they have the opportunity to make crucial, rational decisions rather than impulse decisions backed by negative emotions. These scenarios include bar fights and heated disagreements between family members that require the prisoner to assess what reactions they’re having and actions they’re taking in these situations.
Additionally, Virtual Rehab puts prisoners in scenarios to practice different vocational occupations to prep them for their job search once entering into the job market again. Practicing these jobs in an environment that poses no threat to other people, prisoners reduce their anxiety when applying for these jobs because they’ve already been exposed to them.
There have been doubts as to whether these programs for prisoners would actually be effective in simulating how prisoners will feel once stepping out into the “real world” after being exposed only to a virtual simulation of it. The effects of putting a juvenile into the criminal system at such a young age might be too detrimental for virtual reality to prepare them for real-life situations, especially when there are a limited amount of senses virtual reality can replicate when being outside in society. In a recent article in U.S News, a prisoner name Wayne Pritchett had trouble simply having regular interactions in society. In the article he states,
For a lot of guys big shopping malls are uncomfortable, as I was at first – people coming this way, people coming that way. That should be another program they implement into virtual reality 
This is a nuance in regular every day life that is not captured and represented well in virtual reality. Due to this, there is a concern that prisoners won't be as well prepped as they believe and perhaps will never be given back the loss of development adolescent growth. The faith in technology's capabilities could be misleading in the case of prisoner development as prisoners might likely return to society still as a threat. Obviously, there are still many possible applications of virtual reality in prisons to be used for bettering the lives of prisoners while in prison and when released.
Society's Perception of Prison
Virtual reality hasn’t been only been used inside of prisons to improve the criminal justice system. People have been using virtual reality to get a “look” inside of prisons to better understand the current conditions prisoners have to live in. Project Empathy is an organization that uses virtual reality films to bring people into prison cells virtually in the hopes that they are more aware of the hardships prisoners face .
- Virtual Rehabilitation: Can VR Help Prisoners Rebuild Their Real Lives? - Medium
- This prison is using vr to teach inmates how to live on the outside - VICE News
- VR rehab could help prisoners learn the valuable life skills they need - Digial Trends
- Introducing Inmates to Real Life via Virtual Reality - US News
- For Some Prisoners On The Cusp Of Freedom, Virtual Reality Readies Them For Release - Colorado Public Radio