Virtual Reality in Prison

During the first meeting of this year’s Honors Class, the most prominent feeling I had was the weight of my incarceration. As I went about the task of contributing to our team discussion, I could feel the overshadowing presence of my incarceration. Although I have become adept at pushing it aside in my mind and working through its debilitating heaviness, for some inexplicable reason I was more aware of the breadth and the depth of the context of my life in prison.

The project our team has decided to take on is inspiring; however, a proposal for VR and the irony of using a simulation or reality to transform the experience of another reality has made incarceration even more real in its effect. The imaging of experiencing being in places I’ve only dreamed of for so long fills me with overwhelming hope, but at the same time, I’m troubled by fears of denial. It is a real possibility that the powers that be may deny the simulation of a reality with education and therapeutic benefit for an incarceration reality and thereby locking me away from the outside world both physically and virtually. It is as though I’m being imprisoned in multiple worlds.

The thoughts of reality and imagining of other places through VR gives me this acute sense of confinement. It also allows me to consider what the students from the outside world are experiencing in visiting a prison. Maybe in some way it’s like a form of virtual reality.
— Yusef Jihad, Co-Founder of Bridges to HOPE and current inmate at TRU.


Logo by Sinistrad on the Noun Project

Students inside the Twin Rivers Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex had some ideas of having virtual reality in prison. They told Claudia Jensen - a professor at the University of Washington who teaches HONORS 230B: Education Inside Prison - of these seemingly radical ideas. Then, Claudia sent an email which spread through the Computer Science & Engineering Department’s undergraduate mailing list, which I was a part of. The post immediately caught my attention - as I had been wanting to take this class since I heard about it my first quarter during a HOPE (Huskies for Opportunities in Prison Education) meeting. Meanwhile, Claudia had been in touch with the Reality Lab - a lab which I was interested in joining. Everything came together, and I started doing research about the concept of “VR in Prison.” This concept, for the longest time, seemed: exotic, unnecessary, and impractical with respect to the plethora of issue-solution pairs pertaining to prisons. Even after hours of looking at the applications of virtual reality and the problems it could solve in prison, the foundation of the project still seemed shaky and unjustified.

Why, of all other ideas and solutions, did they find virtual reality to be a reasonable request? Is this just something they wanted for fun and entertainment? Could this have negative implications in the future? What problems are they really trying to solve with this? Aren’t there alternative solutions which would be more cost-effective? These doubts plagued my mind; despite the fact that virtual reality is already being used in prison; despite the fact that VR has been proven as an effective tool for a plethora of applications.

The only reasons why these doubts existed was because I hadn’t any communication with the user directly. I’m an engineer, to the core. Engineering involves finding the most effective solution around a well-defined problem. The “problem” isn’t inherently negative, it’s simply a need which results from an ill. This problem cannot, in any universe, be defined without the user. The users, or clients, or whatever you want to call them, are the ones who own the problem. They own the foundation of any engineering project. I was lost without this foundation. I found that foundation when I met with the TRU inmates for the first time.

The Project


The project basically has three "phases" thus far:

  • Phase 1: 30 days of:

    • Doing my own research about VR

    • Boiling down the research into problem-application cases

    • Developing prototypes/ demos at the Reality Lab

    • Presenting to some re-entry council members

  • Phase 2: 30 days of:

    • Summer B-term - the HONORS 230B Class

    • Continuing the above R&D

    • Visiting the prison every Wednesday (4 times in total) to collaborate with inmates

    • Working together to develop our final presentation (which took place on August 15th) in front of re-entry/ DOC officials

  • Phase 3: Continuing the project after the class. This involves the short future directions in the presentation, which are:

    • 1) Demo at Reality Lab: inviting re-entry/ DOC officials to experience VR in general and specific applications for use inside prison

    • 2) Demo at TRU: bringing VR equipment inside the prison to show some inmates what we showed the officials at the Lab

    • 3) Pilot Program: establishing the equipment inside the prison as a trial program

    • All these steps are dependent on the previous one: depending on how one goes, we may or may not proceed to the next.

Similarly, the project may or may not survive through the next phases depending on how this current one goes - we'll play it by ear. I can envision a "Phase 4" which involves establishing a more permanent program, a "Phase 5" which involves maintaining that program, and a "Phase 6" which involves expanding the program; whilst developing the local programs, I can continue pushing out academic results: open-source (or otherwise) libraries for VR development, VR scenes/ programs for use inside prison or for a plethora of other applications, research papers justifying the use of VR in Prison and gathering results... Regardless, there's no need to establish all those things. As I'm typing this, we're in Phase 3 which I expect to last a while, probably a year (as opposed to 30 days like the previous phases). 

Phase 1: A Month of Preliminary R&D

 Presenting to DOC/ Re-entry Officials

Presenting to DOC/ Re-entry Officials

 An ORCA card scanner model for importing into Unity

An ORCA card scanner model for importing into Unity

Recorded with
DateHoursDescription (by hour)
6/21/183Created Trello board + designed/ fitted logo draft + populated Trello board with tasks
  Created this document and began preliminary research document
  Completed the introduction to AR/ VR section and began the technology summary of that document
6/24/182Progressed VR trade study (gathering product information)
  Progressed VR trade study (finding appropriate categories for evaluation)
6/25/183Progressed VR trade study (filling product table w/out evaluation)
  Finished product research
  Polished the product research document (draft 2)
6/26/183Beginning product research document Draft 2
  Finished product research document draft 2, under revision; began literature review draft 1 (random problems/ thoughts section)
  Continuing literature review draft 1 (more problem finding)
6/27/182 (+ meeting)Meeting + some reading
  1 hour reading
6/28/181Setting up Unity and setting tasks for tutorials
6/29/182Reading research reports (VRET [virtual reality exposure therapy) in PTSD treatment)
  Reading research reports (VRET meta-analysis: can be generalized to real life and "Understanding Prison" issues
6/30/183Completed Unity tutorial 1
  Doing Unity tutorial 2, installing more software, overcoming frustrating technical issues
  Completed Unity tutorial 2!
7/1/183Continuing reading on prison issues
  Continuing reading on prison issues
  Continuing reading on prison issues
7/2/182Polished document for printing/ distribution (pdf, in shared folder) and began short slideshow
  Continuing/ finishing up slideshow
7/3/184Continuing slideshow
  Exploring + researching SteamVR apps
  Finished slideshow draft 1
  Practice presentation
7/4/183Meeting + powerpoint editing
  Editing powerpoint + demo planning
  Literature review draft 2
7/7/184Powerpoint Draft 2
  Literature review draft 2
  Finalizing literature review draft 2
  Problem definition intial steps and practice presentation
7/8/182Reading notes about orientation tracking w/ IMUs (in Stanford's EE267 course)
  Watching more videos about headset construction/ IMU implementation in EE267 + testing Cardboard + making research findings slide
DateHoursDescription (by hour)
7/10/186Following SteamVR Unity tutorial
  Following SteamVR Unity tutorial
  Creating new game for ORCA card scanning - Made an ORCA card in VR
  Progressing ORCA card game - trying to make the bus environment
  Made the bus environment!
  Made an indicator for when the card can be picked up
7/11/183Setting up tasks in Trello and beginning VR/ AR research overview document
  Meeting and coming up with more ideas under problem definition
  Downloaded Blender, searched the internet for existing scanner models (found none)
7/12/184Blender tutorials
  Blender tutorials
  Blender tutorials
  Blender tutorials (I'm making such slow progress)
7/14/183Drafted the Tuesday 5 minute pitch
  I'm exhausted with tutorials - I'm just gonna have a crack at making the scanner. As Richard Feynman once said: "I always tried to do it myself, becuase I'd learn something, maybe get a different idea. I never looked it up." I'll still look difficulties up - but only after I've attempted getting somewhere with what I know already.
  Made a very rough model of the scanner - it took me way longer than I should have. I'm finding Blender extremely unintuitive/ clunky/ difficult.
7/16/182Gathering prison issue information
  Lightning talk practice
  Orca Demo: collider created and beginning audio playing
  Orca Demo: debugging audio issues, just got it to work
  Orca Demo: collider working party way
  Orca Demo: CAD'ing the scanner
  Orca Demo: CAD'ing the scanner
  Orca Demo: Finished CAD'ing the scanner
7/18/183Re-designing the literature review: putting all sources in RefWorks
  Re-designing the literature review: making a more eloquent and well-formated Draft 3 (in Word). Draft 2 will remain as a place to keep ALL my ideas as they come.
  Finished Literature Review Draft 3. Next: to make a document covering BOTH VR tech and literature. Then make a presentation for it.
7/19/186Orca Demo: Implement the timed tap-and-release mechanism
  Orca Demo: Continue fixing bugs with the pick-up mechanism (highlighting, resetting position)
  Orca Demo: Skip some bugs (going through the box when holding card) - finish and upload functional draft w/ git - make sure it's pulled on all sources
  Orca Demo: Working on Draft 2 - realistic scanner is imported, collider is scaled, now working on blinking lights
  Orca Demo: About to finish blinking lights
  Orca Demo: Finished blinking lights, fixed height issue with ground/ camera
7/23/188Meeting + fixing up VR issues
  Got the outline shader to work, highlights well
  ORCA card is shaded & realistic; red light blinks realistically
  Added realistic LCD-like text to the scanner
  Added ambient sound; added skybox, city street, building
  Adding lighting (exterior and interior)
  Added a whole block of buildings, streetlights, benches, trees, signs, etc
  Adding people and looking into hand models

Phase 2: A Month of the class

Every Wednesday of the 4 weeks in Summer B-term, we'd visit the prison for three hours. Tuesdays and Thursdays were sections. 

Here are the logs of how every meet went: 

week 1

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.

Week 2

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.

week 3

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.

week 4

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.

DateHoursDescription (by hour)
7/25/184Prison meeting about VR
  Prison meeting about VR
  Prison meeting about VR
  Summing up meeting, task-setting, and research
7/26/184Research/ task-setting
  Incorporating hands
  Prison research and got hands to work!
7/27/181DBT workbook
7/29/184Organizing Trello and GDrive folder for HONORS230B and populating To-Do's/ managing progress
  DBT workbook
  DBT workbook
  DBT workbook
7/30/184DBT workbook
  DBT workbook
  DBT workbook
  DBT workbook (finished completely - with notes about VR-appropriate exercises - I just have to rank/ choose the best ones)
  Outlining presentation improvements
  Refining and coming up with some solid ideas for DBT in VR
  DBT in VR research + starting to develop Band of Light
  Developed a draft of Band of Light
8/1/183Prison meeting about VR
  Prison meeting about VR
  Prison meeting about VR
8/2/185Modifying band of light
  Trying out VRTK
  VRTK examples
  Sketching out DBT VR app
  Finished couple VRTK tutorials; the reviews weren't lying - this makes development far easier!
8/5/182Setting up TODOs and starting improving the VR Setup document
  VR Setup document thoroughly filled
8/6/184More VR research + emailing Claudia with documents and info for DOC approval (it's not looking good)
  Sketching VR cart
  Finished sketch of VR cart
  DBT recording and outreach draft (for review tomorrow)
8/7/185Problem-analysis of VR applications
  Continuing problem analysis (for presentation)
  Finishing up presentation
  Finished up presentation before revision by classmates, outreach, organizing Trello to prepare for more app development
  Added audio to DBT Band of Light, experimented with VRTK hands - didn't get that far (documentation is difficult)
8/8/183Prison meeting about VR
  Prison meeting about VR
  Prison meeting about VR
8/9/184Getting TODO's all set for the next week, drafting email
  Working on a culminating report and setup document draft 1
  Filling the DOC report draft 0 and editing final presentation
  Powerpoint presentation
8/12/182Small powerpoint edits, vr+prison research (making sure sources are good), email
  Reading the vr+corrections paper; it's the worst thing I've ever read
8/13/183DOC report draft 0
  DOC report draft 0
  DOC report draft 0
8/14/18812:30-1:30: Planning DOC report draft 1
  1:30-2:30: Creating a website which I can link in the DOC report
  3-4: writing-up DOC report draft 1
  4-5: writing up DOC report draft 1 (focusing on the annotated bibliography)
  5-6: writing up DOC report draft 1 - finished the annotated bibliography component -
  6-7: Finished writing up DOC report draft 1
  7-8: Downloading the presentation for offline
  8-9: Finished downloading the presentation for offline
8/15/183VR presentation
  VR presentation
  VR presentation
8/16/181VR Demo for Honors staff member
8/20/181Lightning talk presentation prep

Phase 3




Waiting for image approvals from the DOC...

Anand Sekarvr, vr-prison