Virtual Reality Technology for Inmates

By: Nicole Gram

Since 2005, the United States Supreme Court has sought to eliminate mandatory sentences by court for minors, ruling in 2012 that a life without parole sentence for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment and, therefore, unconstitutional.[1] In response, several states passed laws providing juveniles with an opportunity for re-sentencing or unanticipated release.[2] This situation created a significant challenge for release programs to prepare inmates for lives outside of prison and reduce the likelihood of them returning, which can be caused by their difficulty readjusting to society.[3] Two companies have created solutions to this dilemma that leverage virtual reality technology. Nsena has been filming 360-degree videos that can transport inmates into a new environment with images they can see and is developing a way to help inmates practice diffusing tension and dealing with conflict.[4] Dr. Raji Wahidy, founder and CEO of Virtual Rehab, believes virtual reality has potential to rehabilitate and educate prisoners, prepare them for a better life outside of prison, reduce the number of repeat offences, and ease the burden on taxpayers.[5]

The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment “guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions.”[6]  Several cases of precedent are relevant in this arena. In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 560 (2005), the courts held that the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment for children and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), concluded that the Amendment prohibits a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of a nonhomicide offense.[7] Graham further likened life without parole for juveniles to the death penalty, leading to the requirement for sentencing authorities to consider the characteristics of a defendant and the details of the offense before issuing a death sentence.[8] While Graham’s flat ban on life without parole was for nonhomicide crimes, nothing that Graham said about children is crime-specific.[9] Thus, its reasoning implicates any life without parole sentence for a juvenile.[10] Roper and Graham establish that children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes due to their “lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility; they are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure; and their characters are not as well formed.”[11]

The Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that life sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional presented even more challenges around preparing inmates for release since they may have been imprisoned for decades and missed acquiring necessary life skills while imprisoned as juveniles.[12] According to the Federal Bureau of Justice, more than half of state prisoners return to prison within five years of their release.[13] Citing statistics from the US National Institute of Justice, Dr. Wahidy said that two out of three offenders who leave prison return within three years, and 75 percent return within five years.[14] In light of this data, prison release programs were in desperate need of a creative solution to prepare this large group of inmates, who had likely spent more time in prison than out, to survive and live successfully in the outside world. Virtual reality technology is well known for gaming and entertainment but, in recent years, is being applied to other areas, such as education, and appears to be a potential solution for the training and preparation of inmates.

Nsena, a virtual reality company, has been filming 360-degree videos of places, such as halfway houses, to provide images that inmates will see in the outside world. Nsena is also developing a way to use virtual reality to help inmates reduce stress and deal with conflict appropriately.[15] These videos can transport users into a new environment and allow them to simulate the feelings they will experience.[16] Another company, Virtual Rehab, founded by CEO, Dr. Raji Wahidy, also believes in the potential of virtual reality to educate and prepare prisoners for a better life outside of prison toward the goal of reducing taxpayer burden and minimizing repeat offender rates.[17] Virtual Rehab’s technology allows prisoners to perform practical tasks in computer-generated worlds and uses haptic feedback technology, which provides a sense of touch, to make the experience feel more realistic.[18] Virtual reality technology is also being used as a treatment for mental health issues to help patients change negative or destructive thoughts and behavior.[19]It has been used successfully for reduction of stress, anxiety and phobias.[20] Since fifty six percent of prisoners in state prisons and sixty four percent of inmates in local jails have some form of mental illness, there is real value in using virtual reality for rehabilitation.[21]

As the state with largest number of juvenile inmates sentenced to life without parole, Pennsylvania implemented a number of programs to assist inmates with re-entry into communities, including virtual reality.[22] By early 2017, 105 juvenile inmates had been released after taking tours of their new homes via virtual reality headsets.[23] Also in 2017, Colorado started an early release program for juveniles who have already served twenty years of their sentence.[24] The three-year program requires inmates to use virtual reality to practice skills like doing laundry and grocery shopping.[25] Colorado has designed a catalogue of instructional virtual reality applications that educate users in everything from self-checkout and bagging groceries, using a debit card, to doing laundry and appropriately handling potentially violent confrontations.[26] Dozens of Coloradans now have a chance at release and are getting help via virtual reality to prepare for living on the outside and learning how to cope with situations they will encounter in society.[27]

Despite the measured benefits of virtual reality, some people still have concerns. Individuals focused on the punishment aspects of prison view the access to expensive games and entertainment for inmates as a conflict.  However, this is addressed by managing the use of virtual reality to focus solely on educational and mental health objectives.[28] With more than 650,000 inmates released each year, there is ample opportunity for positive value in leveraging this technology to release productive and law-abiding citizens with a healthy state-of-mind back into society.[29]

 

[1] See Melnick, Kyle, Inmates use VR to Prepare for Life on the Outside, VR Scout (Jan. 2, 2018), https://vrscout.com/news/inmates-vr-prepare-life-on-outside/, For Some Inmates on the Cusp of Freedom Virtual Reality Readies them for Release, CorrectionsOne (Mar. 27, 2018), https://www.correctionsone.com/re-entry-and-recidivism/articles/472767187-For-some-inmates-on-the-cusp-of-freedom-virtual-reality-readies-them-for-release/, Dolven, Taylor & Fidel, Emma, This Prison is Using VR to Teach Inmates how to Live on the Outside, Vice News (Dec. 27, 2017), https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/bjym3w/this-prison-is-using-vr-to-teach-inmates-how-to-live-on-the-outside.

[2] See Kim, Catherine, Introducing Inmates to Real Life via Virtual Reality, U.S. News & World Rep. (Mar. 15, 2018, 3:57 PM), https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2018-03-15/introducing-inmates-to-real-life-via-virtual-reality and For Some Inmates on the Cusp of Freedom Virtual Reality Readies them for Release, CorrectionsOne (Mar. 27, 2018), https://www.correctionsone.com/re-entry-and-recidivism/articles/472767187-For-some-inmates-on-the-cusp-of-freedom-virtual-reality-readies-them-for-release/.

[3] See Kim, Catherine, Introducing Inmates to Real Life via Virtual Reality, U.S. News & World Rep. (Mar. 15, 2018, 3:57 PM), https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2018-03-15/introducing-inmates-to-real-life-via-virtual-reality.

[4] See id.

[5] See Bindi, Tas, New York Startup to Use VR Tech to Rehabilitate Prisoners, ZD Net (Nov. 25, 2016), https://www.zdnet.com/article/new-york-startup-to-use-vr-tech-to-rehabilitate-prisoners/.

[6] See Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 560 (2005).

[7] See Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 560 (2005) and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).

[8] See Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).

[9] See id.

[10] See id.

[11] See Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 560 (2005) and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).

[12] See Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479-80 (2012), Kim, Catherine, Introducing Inmates to Real Life via Virtual Reality, U.S. News & World Rep. (Mar. 15, 2018, 3:57 PM), https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2018-03-15/introducing-inmates-to-real-life-via-virtual-reality, Melnick, Kyle, Inmates use VR to Prepare for Life on the Outside, VR Scout (Jan. 2, 2018), https://vrscout.com/news/inmates-vr-prepare-life-on-outside/.

[13] See Kim, Catherine, Introducing Inmates to Real Life via Virtual Reality, U.S. News & World Rep. (Mar. 15, 2018, 3:57 PM), https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2018-03-15/introducing-inmates-to-real-life-via-virtual-reality.

[14] See Bindi, Tas, New York Startup to Use VR Tech to Rehabilitate Prisoners, ZD Net (Nov. 25, 2016), https://www.zdnet.com/article/new-york-startup-to-use-vr-tech-to-rehabilitate-prisoners/.

[15] See Kim, Catherine, Introducing Inmates to Real Life via Virtual Reality, U.S. News & World Rep. (Mar. 15, 2018, 3:57 PM), https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2018-03-15/introducing-inmates-to-real-life-via-virtual-reality.

[16] See Zoukis, Christopher, Virtual Reality Behind Bars Could Change the Game for Prisoners, Huffington Post (Dec. 6, 2017), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-zoukis/virtual-reality-behind-ba_b_12791456.html.

[17] See Bindi, Tas, New York Startup to Use VR Tech to Rehabilitate Prisoners, ZD Net (Nov. 25, 2016), https://www.zdnet.com/article/new-york-startup-to-use-vr-tech-to-rehabilitate-prisoners/.

[18] See id.

[19] See Zoukis, Christopher, Virtual Reality Behind Bars Could Change the Game for Prisoners, Huffington Post (Dec. 6, 2017), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-zoukis/virtual-reality-behind-ba_b_12791456.html.

[20] See id.

[21] See Zoukis, Christopher, Virtual Reality Behind Bars Could Change the Game for Prisoners, Huffington Post (Dec. 6, 2017), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-zoukis/virtual-reality-behind-ba_b_12791456.html.

[22] Kim, Catherine, Introducing Inmates to Real Life via Virtual Reality, U.S. News & World Rep. (Mar. 15, 2018, 3:57 PM), https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2018-03-15/introducing-inmates-to-real-life-via-virtual-reality.

[23] See id.

[24] See Melnick, Kyle, Inmates use VR to Prepare for Life on the Outside, VR Scout (Jan. 2, 2018), https://vrscout.com/news/inmates-vr-prepare-life-on-outside/, For Some Inmates on the Cusp of Freedom Virtual Reality Readies them for Release, CorrectionsOne (Mar. 27, 2018), https://www.correctionsone.com/re-entry-and-recidivism/articles/472767187-For-some-inmates-on-the-cusp-of-freedom-virtual-reality-readies-them-for-release/, Dolven, Taylor & Fidel, Emma, This Prison is Using VR to Teach Inmates how to Live on the Outside, Vice News (Dec. 27, 2017), https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/bjym3w/this-prison-is-using-vr-to-teach-inmates-how-to-live-on-the-outside.

[25] See Dolven, Taylor & Fidel, Emma, This Prison is Using VR to Teach Inmates how to Live on the Outside, Vice News (Dec. 27, 2017), https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/bjym3w/this-prison-is-using-vr-to-teach-inmates-how-to-live-on-the-outside.

[26] See Melnick, Kyle, Inmates use VR to Prepare for Life on the Outside, VR Scout (Jan. 2, 2018), https://vrscout.com/news/inmates-vr-prepare-life-on-outside/.

[27] See For Some Inmates on the Cusp of Freedom Virtual Reality Readies them for Release, CorrectionsOne (Mar. 27, 2018), https://www.correctionsone.com/re-entry-and-recidivism/articles/472767187-For-some-inmates-on-the-cusp-of-freedom-virtual-reality-readies-them-for-release/.

[28] See Zoukis, Christopher, Virtual Reality Behind Bars Could Change the Game for Prisoners, Huffington Post (Dec. 6, 2017), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-zoukis/virtual-reality-behind-ba_b_12791456.html and Bindi, Tas, New York Startup to Use VR Tech to Rehabilitate Prisoners, ZD Net (Nov. 25, 2016), https://www.zdnet.com/article/new-york-startup-to-use-vr-tech-to-rehabilitate-prisoners/.

[29] See Zoukis, Christopher, Virtual Reality Behind Bars Could Change the Game for Prisoners, Huffington Post (Dec. 6, 2017), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-zoukis/virtual-reality-behind-ba_b_12791456.html and Melnick, Kyle, Inmates use VR to Prepare for Life on the Outside, VR Scout (Jan. 2, 2018), https://vrscout.com/news/inmates-vr-prepare-life-on-outside/.

Image Source: http://bestvr.tech/virtual-reality-prepares-long-term-prisoners-release/