Editor’s Picks

3 Initiatives That Teach Inmates Using VR

By Henry Kronk
November 29, 2018

Virtual reality (VR) based education initiatives have already demonstrated their use in institutions from premed labs to Kentucky Fried Chicken kitchens. It should come as no surprise that they have already demonstrated their use in prisons around the world.

VR presents the ability to escape one’s settings and travel somewhere new. That’s useful for learners and classrooms that don’t have the means to make distant trips. But for others who are confined to the same cell and facility for years, it would be difficult to overstate the advantages it offers.

The following represent 3 uses of VR in prisons around the world.

1. Literacy in New Zealand’s Otago Corrections Facility

Toward the very southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island lies the Otago Region. For the past few months, inmates at the Otago Corrections Facility in Milburn have been donning VR headsets for an unlikely educational initiative. It has been estimated that roughly 65% of incarcerated Kiwis struggle with literacy and numeracy.

In response, famed television presenter and producer Ian Taylor, along with his production company Taylormade Media, developed a VR environment that helps learners better their reading skills while fixing a virtual car.

“We built a virtual environment where you put the headset on, and you’re standing in the street and there’s a garage across the road,” Taylor told the Otago Daily Times.

“You have to read certain signs and things on there and learn things to get the doors open. Then you go inside and basically you’re in a garage and you work your way through and there’s literacy and numeracy stuff inside.”

The initiative is currently in development. Every few weeks, the Taylormade team brings a beta version to the Otago prison for 12 inmates to test it out.

“The prisoner came in and he put on the headset and he looked through the headset and he said ‘Hey Bro! We’re out!'” said Jimmy McLauchlan, who teaches in the facility with Methodist Missions South, according to the ODTIt was incredible. He got this whole sense that he had left the prison to do this so the level of engagement went through the roof.”

The project is being privately funded (at the tune $2 million NZD) by Hawke’s Bay iwi Ngāti Kahungunu.

2. Preparing Incarcerated Illinoian Youth for Life Outside

The transition between jail and freedom can be tough. One goes from a highly regimented world where nearly every hour of the day is scheduled to a sphere in which all control is handed over.

In answer, a team from the University of Illinois have designed a VR intervention that helps individuals soon to be released get used to life outside.

The project is led by Professor Rebecca Ginsburg, who is also the director of the Education Justice Project.

“The goal is to teach students methods and processes necessary to create innovative products that are human-centered, working collaboratively with social impact research to create a space where graphic and industrial design students can apply their skills to a real problem, with real people,” said Lisa Mercer, a graphic design professor who co-taught the class with industrial design professor William Bullock, according to VR Focus.

3. Releasing Life-Sentence Inmates Convicted as Youths

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that maximum life sentences without parole delivered to minors were unconstitutional. Following the ruling, prisons across the country began the long process of preparing inmates who thought they’d never get out for release.

Director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Community Corrections Danny McIntyre figured VR would be a good solution.

“Could VR help inmates prepare to be in a large crowd?” he wondered, according to the Marshall Project. “Could we prepare them to do everyday common things? Things that we take for granted. Things they haven’t done in their entire lifetime.”

McIntyre then set about creating virtual replicas of the state’s halfway houses where released inmates would transition. Before leaving their facility, inmates got a chance to explore the place where they’d be living for a few months following detention.

The state of Colorado separately developed another program that uses VR to teach basic skills, like opening and using a bank account or simply navigating in public. The state hired Nsena VR to develop these simulations.

“Right now we have 32 lessons,” said Nsena VRPrograms Coordinator Melissa Smith, according to VR Focus. “From how to cook a hotdog in the microwave to how to do laundry. How to self-scan at the checkout. How to walk on a busy street. How to use an ATM card.”

Almost every state in the U.S. currently prohibits internet in prisons, making technology-based learning initiatives nearly impossible. Securing inmates access to the internet is on the agenda for numerous prisoner rights advocacy groups.

Featured Image: Hedi Benyounes, Unsplash.