Virtual reality goes behind bars to rehabilitate inmates

Virtual reality is being investigated as a means to teach and rehabilitate those in prison.

Virtual reality (VR), which may include the use of headsets, PC software, or mobile applications, is slowly being investigated in education and training.

Google Glass did not take off within the consumer space but its augmented reality (AR) technology has found merit in industrial work and employee training, and recent research conducted by the University of Maryland suggests that VR environments may be more effective for the purpose of revision and memory retention than computer screens.

When it comes to health and wellbeing, VR is also being piloted to improve end-of-life care.

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Learning and balanced well-being, together, can be important factors in rehabilitation.

In 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole issued to young offenders was unconstitutional. In total, 28 states upheld the original law, and some have now amended their stance.

However, this has left prison wardens with an interesting dilemma -- those expected to never leave their cells will now potentially be released one day, and may not be equipped with any of the basic skills or knowledge to survive on the outside.

As reported by VR Focus, a number of officials have turned to technology to tackle the problem.

In Colorado, programs coordinator Melissa Smith is working with Nsena VR to provide virtual ways of preparing inmates from the confines of the prison.

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"An offender can be transported anywhere, including a family living room, a grocery store or the workplace," Nsena says. "An offender can practice simple tasks like doing laundry to difficult social skills such as dealing with family or job conflicts. The impact of 360-degree immersion is powerful in a way that other education and training platforms lack."

Speaking to the publication, Smith said that 32 lessons have been created so far which cover the basic activities of the outside world.

"How to cook a hotdog in the microwave to how to do laundry," Smith explained. "How to self-scan at the checkout. How to walk on a busy street. How to use an ATM card."

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HTC Vive VR headsets and the Nsena platform provide the lessons, which are then enforced through class practice. Social workers are on hand to provide support.

Smith is not able to predict the success of such applications of VR as none of the juveniles held in Colorado due to life sentences have yet been released.

However, if the VR experiment can provide basic knowledge and skills for outside survival, it may have the potential to make rehabilitation and the transition to the outside more successful.

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