The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ virtual reality testing program is designed to help inmates get started and also improve communication with their children.
Returning to a normal life is a challenge for prisoners. It is difficult for incarcerated parents to re-establish relationships with their children after their incarceration, for example. They only see their children during brief visits to prison visiting rooms while they are incarcerated.
Visiting an incarcerated parent is also stressful for 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.
Virtual reality for inmates can create closeness at a distance
Rather than 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 US Office of Juvenile Justice, 21 Meta Quest 2 headsets were purchased and 11 virtual reality experiences were developed to allow contact between incarcerated parents and their children in virtual reality.
For example, participants can talk to each other as they explore the International Space Station together. The appearance of VR avatars can be customized to make the experience more realistic and personal.
Organizations like Amachi Pittsburgh and Public Health Management Corporation in Philadelphia help 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 from the Department of Corrections explains that such visits from afar mitigate children’s negative experiences. The program is not intended to be a complete substitute for actual tours; after all, children need to be able to see their parents in real life.
Using virtual reality to facilitate re-entry into daily life
In addition to communication training, the Department of Corrections program also offers virtual reality experiences that show inmates how to shop, use a cell phone or clean an apartment. Similar virtual reality programs existed in the US several years ago.
The DOC uses the VR Wrap Technologies training platform for this purpose. “The goal really here is good family and community reintegration,” says executive director TJ Kennedy. Working with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, he sees social value in virtual reality. “And I think both for re-entry, corrections and law enforcement, we’re in a really important place where there are investments that can be leveraged to use new technology.”