Virtual Reality in Prison
CLick Here to go to my blog post on this project.
Phase 1: A Month of Preliminary R&D
Every Wednesday of the 4 weeks in Summer B-term, we'd visit the prison for three hours. Tuesdays and Thursdays were sections.
Visiting the TRU was a novel experience: I'd never been to a prison before, nor have I ever had an interaction with currently (or formerly - as far as I had known) incarcerated persons. The most surprising thing about the visit was how extremely efficient the TRU students were at communication and collaboration; I've been a member of several robotics/ hackathon/ engineering project groups and I've never come across a group that was so justifiably innovative - considering several viewpoints and covering important points whilst taking care of gaps in our conversation. They knew exactly what they wanted and had all the information to justify their problem-solution proposal. In addition to the amazing conversations, the TRU students themselves were amazing people - big personalities, very friendly, and fun to be around. They inspired me to work harder and take advantages of the privileges I have outside (access to a vast array of information and resources) to help them in our project. I haven't experienced that kind of motivation, as an engineer who works closely with users, in years.
Whilst waiting for the bus, a heavily-tattooed man approached me and asked if he could borrow my phone; I let him, and he asked me what I was reading. I was reading a printout of "Complex Sentences," by Clint Smith, and I told him about the class. He said that he was in prison too, and I asked him if he partook in any college-level educational programs. He said he didn't, he only did the GED program, but I heard from him what I've heard from pretty much any prisoner I've talked with or heard on the "Ear Hustle" podcast - he was just trying to survive.
Upon arriving at the prison, we met UW Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs - Dr. Edward Taylor. We talked about schools and community programs and whatnot while waiting for a security guard to let us in.
The discussions with the TRU students - as last time - were efficiently productive and insightful. We covered the presentation structure, talked more about what the solution needs to cover, and discussed anecdotes which conveyed the issues we're trying to solve. We discussed the weak points of our proposal (cost of maintenance, security of setup procedures and storage) and talked more about points to convey in our presentation (considering those who won't re-enter, priority of applications). Our projects are progressing well. We discussed how companies profit off of prison, and how the over-expensive toasters or TV's that the inmates buy break several times (one is buying their sixth). We spent the last several minutes of our meeting just socializing - talking about our fields of study and different kinds of technology (topics like sustainable energy, lab-grown meat, etc...). Before we left, Dean Taylor mentioned that our projects aren't just tools for reducing the recidivism rate; we're providing the inmates with education as a fundamental human right.
That statement agreed with the "Complex Sentences" paper, which I finished reading later that evening. The paper was so relevant, legitimate, and inspiring that I created a FB group chat with the classmates and sent them this:
"there are a few reasons I made this group chat (staying in touch about projects, maybe getting some sorta social gathering) but the thing that pushed me to do it was finishing reading the "Complex Sentences" paper.
That has gotta be one of the most motivating things I've ever read. I strongly urge you all to read it too if you haven't already. It really contextualizes what we're doing here and shows how our work can extend beyond tools for reducing recidivism. As the dean said earlier today, we're working on providing human rights, i.e. education. The paper really puts that into perspective in a beautiful way.
Also check out "Are Prisons Obsolete" by Angela Davis - it's super short and to the point and thoroughly explains what Clint Smith is talking about in the "Complex Sentences" paper."
A classmate exuberantly agreed.
I continue to listen to podcasts and read articles and papers about prison. I've brought up the topic of education inside prison in discussions with my friends - discussions which last hours on end. The class readings and aforementioned sources supplement the project by providing it with context - and most noticeably - motivation. I hope to continue making satisfactory progress - by developing applications in the Reality Lab and bolstering the research presentation - by the next meeting.
Before I boarded the bus, I made color printouts of screenshots of a VR game called "Nature Treks VR." It's one of the most beautiful games I've seen, and I came across it while trying to develop my own relaxing, outdoor VR scenes. The developer's future aims for his company entailed providing more interactive, therapeutic applications - it matched perfectly with the DBT aspect of our project. So I contacted him about our project and attached a scan of Jacob's notes on VR applications (which he wrote on a typewriter and handed to me the previous week). The developer was, expectedly, quite interested, so I printed out that email chain along with other materials - powerpoints, research notes, etc... - to bring into our meeting.
We discussed more about the problem-solution justification aspect of the presentation. Similar to how most robotics teams would proceed, we quantified the solutions and provided a solid justification for how VR was the best solution - in each problem we defined - compared to alternatives. Again, that discussion was thoroughly productive - as productive as any other team I had been on. Every aspect was carefully considered and discussed; disagreements were politely mentioned; and changes to the current status - through those disagreements - were easily made. It was the most innovative team environment I have ever had the pleasure being a part of.
When I handed them the aforementioned pictures, their eyes lit up. What was on the permitted paper wasn't close to what one would experience actually playing the game, but it was enough to justify the inmates' hope for a better future. It gave us a sense that we were really getting close to this thing, that we could really make this happen.
That small action of printing and handing a few pictures isn't significant on it's own, or even in the context of the project. But it meant something on a larger scale. Throughout this project, and many others, I'd have obstructive thoughts that this work wouldn't amount to anything significant. Whether it was the bureaucracy, the superficial lack of novelty, the superficial lack of justified innovation, I thought none of this would make a dent in the world. That may be so, but existence is a relative concept - if I'm able to change one's own perception of the world (or Reality itself), then I've changed the world. I don't want to make this project all about me. I don't want to use the inmates' troubles as fuel for my ego. However, the feeling I felt them feel when we saw those pictures was utter hope, like I've never felt before. I may be sensationalizing all this a tad bit, but moments like those keep me going when I'm at my lowest. I really do hope this project succeeds, for it's benevolent in nature and absolutely justified.
Up until an hour before we arrived at the prison, the laptop and powerpoint presentation weren't officially approved. I spent days writing a report which would contain all the content of the presentation - plus more information. I mentally prepared myself for every scenario due to the technology approval predicament. Thankfully, the technology went through the security procedures and interfaced with the visiting room projector swimmingly. The reports were all printed and in the folders for audience distribution.
We were given a tour of some of the housing units. It was as I'd expected it to be; nevertheless it was still an enlightening experience; I cannot put into words exactly what I learned. Seeing the faces of the prisoners through the glass, then stepping into their living quarters, provided a much more accurate view of the daily lives of my TRU classmates. There's no better way to express the feeling of that experience than through the word "sonder," which is defined as "the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own."
We gathered ourselves before the presentations and discussed thoughts with a few re-entry officials. The certificate ceremony at the beginning was bittersweet, and I was delighted to finally shake the hands of my teammates. Listening to the other projects was an interesting experience. There were times when I was passionately in agreement, nodding along with the statements made in the speeches. There were times when I was lost in thought, thinking of how I would conclude our presentations (which never really came to fruition since we ran out of time). Christopher Haven's speech about education inside prison, which used the analogy of soaring above the sea, nearly made me cry. Everything every student had to say was important and well-articulated. I've seldom been more proud out of all the classmates I've had. Despite our presentation being slightly condensed, I think we got our point across. If we didn't, the reports would certainly do so. Yusef's words on his relentlessness and feelings of double confinement were powerful, and I hope they were thoroughly heard. The last sentences in my report were inspired by them:
"The key takeaway is that VR is a multi-tool which can provide several, effective solutions in prison. If the confinement of inmates from (outside) reality results in certain issues, perhaps those can be solved with providing parts of another, but virtual, reality."
After the presentation, I approached Christopher Haven to further discuss his ideas of a STEM fair, and said goodbye to my TRU classmates. I hope I'll be seeing them again as this project grows. One thing I didn't get to say at the (rushed) end of the presentations was this: despite that today is when our class ends, it isn't when our project ends. No, it's where our projects begin. If our efforts weren't in vain, then the justified solutions to legitimate problems addressed today will grow into something real. The project is now just not in our hands - of the UW and TRU students - they are also now in the hands of the Department of Corrections and re-entry officials who were in the audience of our presentations. As Yusef said, we won't quit until virtual reality is in prison. After this past month, I can certainly say this has been a life-changing experience. I am more determined than ever to continue working with the Reality Lab, VR developers, the DOC, and the Statewide Reentry Council.
It would be quite easy for us citizens to simply forget about such experiences and continue going about our daily lives. How much empathy do you have for someone across the world, or for someone behind a concrete, barbwire barrier? If you have that empathy, how often does that empathy exist? Does it exist for short bursts when watching the news, when meeting with the inmates face-to-face? How often does that empathy manifest itself into any slightly effective action? I can safely say most of our days are spent in ignorance of such issues, and such ignorance is an act of support of the sub-human conditions inmates (and others, in general) face. I can safely say that the majority of my computer science classmates partake in this indifferent, yet active, ignorance. Ultimately, my point is, if I don't do something, if you don't do something, nothing will happen. Nothing has motivated me more.