Over the last few leaps for Virtual Reality, proponents of the technology have had to expand their concept of use for that which some still see as “futuristic”. There is no doubt that the “future” of Virtual Reality is finally here. It may not be honed to perfection, but VR is light years ahead of where it was just twenty years ago.
Now, VR is being conceptualized for multiple purposes such as Teaching school kids using Google Cardboard, providing world experiences for people who have physical limitations that prevent them from traveling, and of course gaming. However, one company is spearheading efforts in another arena in which VR can provide a huge benefit: Criminal rehabilitation.
An oft forgotten subset of our society, those that have broken the law and spent time incarcerated, have a great deal of difficulty getting back on their feet once they have paid their debts to society. Virtual Rehab, headquartered in New York, is using VR to stem the flow of repeat criminal offenders after release from prison. In the United States, where only 4.4% of the world’s population resides, we house nearly 22% of the world’s prisoners. Virtual Rehab seeks to alter that disproportionate trend.
“We believe that putting a kid in the corner does not teach them how to be a better person but rather teaches them not to get caught.”
A large issue with the prison system is that it inspires more violence, not less. Over five million violent crimes happen within prison systems every year, about 5x the number that are reported in general society. There are multiple reasons why this is the case (putting a bunch of violent people into a confined space is one glaring contributing factor) but the reasons don’t negate the fact that this is how things are for inmates. Many people turn to a life of crime because of unfortunate circumstances in their lives, out of an innate need for survival. Then, when incarcerated, that way of life is compounded exponentially, molding behavior into a way of life instead of it being a reaction beget from an action.
These people tend to be much maligned and completely left by the wayside, thought of as lesser people that simply make bad choices because of some inherent character flaw. They rarely receive the guidance that is required to conform their abilities to useful traits outside of a prison cell.
A NEW WAY TO LEARN
Education as a rehabilitation tool in most prisons is, at the very least, laughable. Decades old texts and instructors that have no incentive to care are staples. However, with Virtual Rehab, the extent of education (much like in a child’s classroom) is practically limitless. Well, technically it’s limited to the programs that have been developed by VR software companies, but new content is being released every week. We’re not just talking about virtually visiting ancient Greek sites or the Great Barrier Reef, or experiencing skydiving without all the risk; Virtual Rehab is focusing on literal rehabilitation – teaching new skills that can be used to create a new world outside of the prison system. A 2011 study by Pew Center on the States found that 43% of inmates released were likely to be repeat offendersand end up back in system.
With new technology, like that from Virtual Rehab, creating a system of true rehabilitation would cost the American public a lot less in the end than re-incarceration of former inmates. With VR-focused programs, inmates can learn actionable vocational skills that could be put to use in the real world once they get out.
From the Virtual Rehab “About” section of their website:
“Every person in life deserves a second chance. Prisoners are no exception to this rule. In fact, they are the ones that are in most dire need for help, support, and development to become improved citizens upon their release.”
Helping inmates realize their potential, building a sense of confidence within themselves, is Virtual Rehab’s endgame. To get there, it needs more support from people that understand the horror of being locked up and the roadblocks that occur after release. Project Empathy seeks to create that level of understanding. “A collection of virtual reality experiences that help us see through the eyes of another” is the credo stamped over looping video on their website. Their first short film, entitled The Letter, places you in the virtual shoes of Shaka Senghor, a man who was incarcerated for 19 years for second-degree murder. The film showcases one persons ability to overcome a terrible decision and change their life for the better.
Virtual Reality can, and should incorporate fun, games, fantasy, and imagination; but the idea that it can be utilized to improve our society in fundamental ways is progressive and potentially a great benefit.
However, the idea isn’t without negatives as well.
Of course there are the financial limitations of such a program. Prisons are funded by taxes and private corporations and, for better or worse, the bottom line is the main objective for many of the institutions. Convicts are people, but they are people who have broken the law; do they deserve the benefit of technology such as virtual reality to better themselves and their lives when people who have treaded the straight and narrow can’t even afford such a luxury?
Allowing inmates access comes with dangers as well; prolific criminals that have committed tech or cyber related crimes could manage to use VR that has a wifi connection to gain outside access and possibly commit further crimes. How does a program director decide who gets to use the VR? For instance, convicted pedophiles are put in prison because they are a danger to children. Is it worth it to try to rehabilitate a pedophile?
Some would argue that is a poor use of resources.
Do we want pedophiles back out in society because they have “shown self-control” in heavily regulated confines? Do they even deserve that chance? Some would say a benevolent society has high regard for quality of life, even for those separated from that society while others would argue that a righteous and fair society wields a swift hammer of justice.