Virtual Reality in Prison

:

A Multi-Tool for Human Issues


“It is as though I’m being imprisoned in multiple worlds.”

- Yusef, Co-Founder of Bridges to HOPE and current inmate at TRU


(Yusef, 2018)

 Claudia Jensen (right) beginning the final class presentations at TRU. (UW Honors Department, 2018)

Claudia Jensen (right) beginning the final class presentations at TRU. (UW Honors Department, 2018)

During Summer 2018, students from UW (taking HONORS 230 B: Education Inside Prison) and inmates at a local prison (TRU of the Monroe Correctional Complex) collaborated on research projects addressing issues in prison. There were three projects: education in prison; aging in prison; and – the project I worked on – virtual reality in prison. This post will focus on exposing that project as a three-phase journey involving research, collaboration, and implementation.


PHASE 1: SETTING THE SCENE

I first heard about the project when I got an email about “VR in Prison” through my department’s mailing list from Claudia Jensen – the professor who teaches the prison class. I was immediately fraught with questions like: “why, out of all other solutions, did they find virtual reality to be reasonable? Is this just some trendy gimmick they wanted for fun and entertainment? Could this have negative implications in the future? Aren’t there alternative solutions which would be more cost-effective?”

So, I did what any curious engineer would do and replied to the email, expressing my interest to start the project. Coincidentally, I was interested in joining the Reality Lab at UW – with whom Claudia was collaborating. Everything came together and the project began. The class only took place during the second half of summer quarter – one month away – so I did what I could in the first month by:

 Dolphy Jordan, from the Washington Statewide Reentry Council, trying out the HTC Vive VR system at the UW Reality Lab (Kessler, 2018).

Dolphy Jordan, from the Washington Statewide Reentry Council, trying out the HTC Vive VR system at the UW Reality Lab (Kessler, 2018).

Despite all the work, my initial doubts weren’t quelled. In engineering, a solution must best solve some problem, which must be experienced by certain clients – in this case, the inmates – who ultimately own the project. Without them, the justification and foundation of this project was nonexistent; I couldn’t wait to meet them.


PHASE 2: FINDING OUR FOOTING

Within the first few minutes of meeting the inmates, those doubts about the project were cleared, and I knew exactly in which direction to head. We met with the inmates weekly – four times in total – to prepare for the final presentation on August 15th in front of re-entry officials. I mention numerous times in my weekly meeting logs that the inmates are far more effective at engineering-oriented collaboration than any of my previous classmates/ colleagues/ teammates; the project developed rapidly and solidly (Sekar, 2018).

There were three inmates in my project group: Yusef, Jacob, and Mark. After rigorous discussion and research, we arrived at three main applications in which VR is the most effective implementation. Each inmate - respectively - represented one of the three applications, and embodied the issues those applications solve.

 From left to right: Yusef, Aidan, Jacob, Krishnika, Mark, Anand [me] (UW Honors Department, 2018).

From left to right: Yusef, Aidan, Jacob, Krishnika, Mark, Anand [me] (UW Honors Department, 2018).

 Preparing for the final presentations at TRU (UW Honors Department, 2018).

Preparing for the final presentations at TRU (UW Honors Department, 2018).

1.   Education: Hands-on Training and Labs

Specifically, there’s a lack of feasible hands-on education which can occur conveniently and more frequently. Hands-on education is far different from watching videos, reading, or doing assignments - it’s not just better or more convenient; in certain subjects, such as physics, it’s absolutely essential. Yusef wouldn’t stop talking about how much he wanted a VR simulator to learn welding - a skill which is rarely taught in prisons.

2.   DBT: Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Calm Visualization Practices

This relates to the more therapeutic/ relaxing side of mental health therapy. DBT entails four aspects: mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance. The core of DBT is within its visualization exercises - which can effectively be taught and personalized through VR. Jacob, who’s been in and out of prison multiple times, understands the mentally debilitating conditions of prison and how it affects him; he notes that DBT and other types of behavioral therapy aren’t available to the vast majority of inmates at TRU. Moreover, being in prison all the time is stressful; having a place to escape mentally is something we all need, and VR can fulfill that.

 An in-game screenshot of NatureTreksVR. I’m currently collaborating with the developer - Greener Games - to bring therapeutic settings and DBT skills to inmates (Carline, 2018).

An in-game screenshot of NatureTreksVR. I’m currently collaborating with the developer - Greener Games - to bring therapeutic settings and DBT skills to inmates (Carline, 2018).

3.   VRET: Exposure to the Outside World & Stressful Situations

(no audio). This video is a short recording of a VR game I developed which teaches the user how to properly scan an ORCA card. Despite how simple it may seem, many inmates have never seen such technology, and most people will “tap” the card wrong the first few times. Next steps would be teaching the user to mount bikes on the bus rack, use Google Maps, and so on (Sekar, 2018).

This relates to the more functional/ stressful side of mental health therapy. VRET stands for Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy. In this modern era, society can change rapidly over a decade or two - technologically and socially. Moreover, prisons have their own unspoken cultures, rules, and behaviors absent in the far more chaotic outside world. This leaves prisoners disconnected from the rest of the world; reasonably, many inmates, such as Mark - who’s been inside prison since before the invention of the internet - fear they won’t be able to re-enter properly. VR can address this issue intuitively and straightforwardly by simulating the outside world.

 

Using a NASA-inspired engineering process, our team thought of all plausible alternative solutions and quantitatively analyzed them by rating and weighting them in three different aspects: security, cost, and effectiveness. Virtual reality consistently turned out to be the best solution summing all the aspects. To see the details, check the “Diving Deeper” section at the bottom.


PHASE 3: ADVANCING WITH AMBITION

After the “final” presentations, the project truly began to take off. With the class done, our future directions are to:

  1. Demo at Reality Lab: inviting re-entry/ DOC officials to experience VR in 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.

Ultimately, VR is is nothing but an immersive medium - like a projector on your head - which has effective applications in many fields. Through this project, we’ve proved that VR can most effectively solve gaps in education, health, and re-entry programs in prison. As a side note, having a virtual reality visiting room (a VR-VR, if you will) or VR physical therapy are also further possibilities. 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.


“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, Co-Founder of Bridges to HOPE and current inmate at TRU

(Yusef, 2018)

 (UW Honors Department, 2018).

(UW Honors Department, 2018).


References

VR-logo-black.png

Carline, J. (2018). Screenshot - Nature Treks VR Greener Games.

Inmates are using VR for a chance to get out of prison; Dolven, T. and Fidel, E. (Directors). (2017, December). [Video] VICE Media.

Yusef. (2018). 230B meeting log

Kessler, D. (2018). AR/VR in prison: Conversations with the DOC; Retrieved from https://realitylab.uw.edu/news-vr-in-prison.html

Learning to Scan an ORCA Card | VR in prison; Sekar, A. (Director). (2018, September). [Video]

Sekar, A. (2018b). Portfolio: Virtual reality in prison. Retrieved from http://www.anandsekar.com/portfolio/vr-prison

UW Honors Department. (2018). HONORS 230B: Final presentations at TRU. Monroe, Washington: University of Washington.



Diving Deeper: Application Justification in Detail

There are three main aspects of each solution: security/ logistics, cost, and benefit/ effectiveness. We can “quantify” how good a solution is by rating how well the solution performs in each of these aspects. Suppose each aspect is rated from 1-5, 1 being the worst and 5 being the best. Then, let’s multiply the “benefit” category by 2 to weight its significance; we do this because benefit is ultimately what we’re looking for, whilst cost and security are considerations.

The notation we’ll use would look like “[ Security | Cost | Benefit ]: Total.” Thus, a perfect solution would be a [ 5 | 5 | 5 ]: 20; remember that the last 5 is multiplied by 2 for the total sum. A given rating for a solution with respect to some problem is judged relative to other solutions for that same problem. All the following ratings were judged by the project teammates and I - every number has some discussed justification behind it.

[ Security | Cost | Benefit ]: Total

Education:

Solutions:

  • Take prisoners outside (to training facilities, labs, etc…)

    • [ 1 | 2 | 5 ] : 13

  • Bring materials & instructors inside

    • [ 2 | 1 | 5 ]: 13

  • Show training/ lab videos

    • [ 5 | 5 | 1.5 ]: 13

  • Interactive VR

    • [ 5 | 4 | 4 ]: 17

Problem: A lack of hands-on education, either in vocational training (welder, mechanic) or lab-based coursework (physics, chemistry, biology).


DBT:

Solutions:

  • Group Therapy w/ several counselors

    • [ 4 | 1 | 3 ]: 11

  • DBT Workbooks

    • [ 5 | 2 | 3 ]: 13

  • DBT Videos

    • [ 5 | 5 | 1 ]: 12

  • VR DBT

    • [ 5 | 4 | 4 ]: 17

Problem: A lack of individualized mental health care for inmates; PTSD; negative emotional response.

 

Solutions:

  • Reading

    • [ 5 | 4 | 2 ]: 13

  • Watching movies/ videos/ similar media

    • [ 4 | 4 | 3 ]: 14

  • Music

    • [ 4 | 2 | 2 ]: 10

  • Actually going outside

    • [ 1 | 2 | 5 ]: 13

  • VR Outdoor Environment

    • [ 5 | 4 | 4.5 ]: 18

Problem: A lack of opportunity for healthy environmental change; a mental escape.


VRET:

Solutions:

  • Videos/ TV/ Books/ casual media

    • [ 3 | 5 | 2 ]: 12

  • Class/ Instruction for release

    • [ 4 | 2 | 3 ]: 12

  • Take prisoners outside

    • [ 1 | 2 | 5 ]: 13

  • VRET

    • [ 5 | 4 | 4 ]: 17

Problem:

A lack of exposure to the outside world before release in (urgent/stressful) situations such as:

  • Bus pass scanning w/ a line

  • Self-checkout w/ a line

  • Google Maps while in a rush

  • Drive-through fast food w/ a crowd

  • Resetting gas pump w/ a line

  • Routine stop by law enforcement



Anand Sekar