New York startup to use VR tech to rehabilitate prisoners

A New York-based startup is looking to bring virtual reality technology into prisons to educate and rehabilitate inmates globally.

Virtual reality (VR) technology has drawn a lot of attention for its ability to stimulate our senses and transport us to another version of reality. The value of the technology is being recognised beyond entertainment, and is percolating into industries such as education, real estate, and now prisoner rehabilitation, through New York-based startup Virtual Rehab.

The company's founder and CEO, entrepreneur Dr Raji Wahidy, firmly believes in VR's potential to rehabilitate and educate prisoners, ultimately preparing them for a better life outside of prison, reducing the number of repeat offences and re-incarceration rates, and easing the burden on taxpayers. Virtual Rehab was founded on the basis of this belief.

The startup is looking to use virtual reality technology to deliver correctional services and rehabilitation programs for sex offenders, domestic violence perpetrators, and other prisoners, as well as provide them with practical job training.

Wahidy told ZDNet that by offering presence simulation to prisoners as an interface metaphor, Virtual Rehab's technology will allow prisoners to perform practical tasks such as replacing a car battery in computer-generated worlds. The startup uses haptic feedback technology -- which provides a sense of touch -- to make the experience feel more realistic. For example, a prisoner will receive a slight shock sensation if they attempt to replace the battery before the car has cooled down after being switched off in the virtual world.

Importantly, the skills gained in virtual environments are directly transferable to the real world, Wahidy said.

Virtual Rehab will also test prisoners' reactions to real-world conflict scenarios, and score them accordingly.

"We will put them in a real-life scenario where they are confronted with some sort of family violence between a husband and a wife or a boyfriend and a girlfriend. Then we will monitor how they react, whether or not they're going to take the proper action to rectify the situation," said Wahidy, who was formerly the VP of operations at Vodafone.

"The proper action in this case would be that they try to interject and separate the two, and if they don't wish to do that, they should call 911 and ask for assistance."

Wahidy admitted that there are going to be prisoners who don't learn from their mistakes, but insisted that the percentage of people who are capable of learning is higher.

"A lot of prisoners genuinely want to integrate with society, and we need to help them rather than label them as offenders for the rest of their lives and not allow them to work or have the abilities or skill sets to work," he said.

"If we don't train them and just let the prison be a place to punish, then what good have we done?"

The total global prison population is currently sitting at around 10.5 million, of which 2.2 million are in the United States, followed by 1.6 million in China, according to the Institute of Criminal Policy Research.

In the 2016-17 financial year, the US government allocated $8.8 billion for prisons and detention. Globally, Virtual Rehab estimates that $35.2 billion will be spent on prisons and detention in the same financial year.

Citing statistics from the US National Institute of Justice, Wahidy said that two out of three offenders who leave prison return within three years, and 75 percent return within five years. This is a contributing factor to congestion in US prisons.

"Whatever they have in place now, it's not working," said Wahidy. "Every person has good in them. It's up to us to whether we enrich this small good and make it larger or make it worse by using prison as punishment."

While VR has only gained mainstream recognition in the last few years, with research indicating that it's poised for a growth spurt, the technology has been used in the medical field for decades as a tool for therapists to administer virtual reality exposure therapy. Numerous studies have found VR to be effective in treating a range of psychological disorders including phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Wahidy said that bringing psychologists and psychiatrists into prison is not only expensive, but also not always the best way to help prisoners.

"Sitting with a psychiatrist can be intimidating," Wahidy said. "Why not experiment with virtual scenarios to teach inmates, rather than force [psychologists and psychiatrists] onto the inmates and make them open up to things that they might not be ready to talk about?"

Wahidy is not the only one who has been thinking about the application of VR technology in prisoner education and rehabilitation. Impassioned prison education advocate Christopher Zoukis, who is currently incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Complex in Petersburg, recently wrote an article exploring the idea of using virtual and augmented reality for the purposes of education and mental health treatment.

"Those focused on the punishment aspects of prison may see the use of virtual and augmented reality as giving prisoners access to expensive games and entertainment. But in reality, content would be focused on educational and vocational skills, literacy, and programs such as mental health," Zoukis wrote.

"Educating and rehabilitating prisoners ultimately reduces recidivism, translates into numerous types of costs savings, and helps integrate released prisoners into society, making them contributing members of communities."

Zoukis has received three certifications while in prison, and is currently completing a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies, with plans to attend law school when he's released in 2018.

Wahidy said it's stories likes Zoukis' that prove more needs to be done to help prisoners become valuable members of society.

He is fully cognizant of the fact that Virtual Rehab will face some significant challenges. For example, some states in the US have stricter laws than others around the use of technology in prisons.

"We will work with government authorities to evaluate how much can we change from a legal and regulatory perspective," Wahidy said. "Obviously, we'll be leveraging the business case, the fact that it has proven to be effective in the medical field, and the fact that [the system] in place now is not working."

Wahidy also acknowledged that there will be challenges when expanding beyond the US and into other regions such as Canada and the United Kingdom.

"Every country has its own laws and regulations, so it has to be localised to that country. Language requirements will also need to be taken into consideration, but it's time we leverage advancements in technology and do good for people who are in dire need of our help," Wahidy said.

"It's a win-win scenario. We're going to lower our taxes, build a better community, build a better future for those who deserve a second chance in life."

Virtual Rehab is currently in discussions with government officials in all US states, as well as venture capitalists, with plans to launch around mid-2017.

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