JYACAP’s premise is that learning the basic skills they missed out on while incarcerated gives these young children a better chance of success upon release. That’s a tough challenge. Internet access is limited due to security concerns. Even though they are now adults, many have never used or seen a smartphone or laptop. Or had a credit card. “We had to find a way to provide these opportunities in a restricted environment,” said Melissa Smith, interim director of prisons at the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Although its use is not yet widespread, a handful of state corrections departments from Ohio to New Mexico have turned to virtual reality as an answer. The goals vary from reducing violent behavior to fostering empathy for victims to reduce recidivism, as in Colorado’s case. Despite the state’s prison budget of nearly $1 billion, Colorado has one of the worst re-incarceration rates in the nation at around 50%. Nationally, of the 600,000 people released from state and federal prisons each year, two-thirds are rearrested within three years.
Is VR the long-missing piece in the puzzle of useless resources and programs meant to reverse these statistics? Or is it another experiment that fails to adequately prepare incarcerated individuals for life beyond locking them up? “It’s not going to be a silver bullet, but I think it’s a very powerful tool for a lot of people, because they never get a chance to experience what we’re trying to teach them,” says Bobby Ticknor. Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Valdosta State University. “I think we have to use everything we have and see what’s best.”
Proponents like Ticknor say VR can foster digital literacy in safe corrections environments by immersing incarcerated people in the sights and sounds of modern life. “When you’re a gamer, when you’re learning a new skill, the better you get them to do what they’re supposed to do in the real world,” says Ethan Moller. Founder and Managing Director of Virtual Training Partners, which helps organizations successfully implement virtual-reality tools. “VR does that better than any other training medium.”
Others are more skeptical. Like Dr. Cindy Rickards, an associate teaching professor at Drexel University, leads weekly criminology courses in Philadelphia prisons. People in prison “wear the prisoner’s tag on their backs.” It’s a dehumanizing system,” she said. “So to suggest that VR is going to reintegrate them into society after they’re in the penal system… it’s just going to antagonize people more, it’s going to continue the process of dehumanizing people, and I don’t read it. Any convincing evidence that this is the way we should use it to help people become healthy and productive members of society.