Inmates are using VR to learn real-world skills

Atorrus Rainer, age 41, is standing in the center of a stuffy, ­fluorescent-lit room. A virtual-reality headset covers his eyes like oversize goggles. Every so often, he extends his arm, using the VR controller to pick up garbage bags, a toothbrush, and toilet paper during a simulated trip to the supermarket. The experience is limited—Rainer has to follow a pre-written shopping list and can only travel to specific locations within the empty store—but the sheer number of products available, even in this digital world, still overwhelms him. So does the self-checkout station: those didn’t exist in 2001, when Rainer, then a teenager, was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison. His first experience with one is this virtual interaction taking place inside Fremont Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison about two hours south of Denver.

Rainer is practicing in the hopes of stepping into a real store in the near future through an initiative launched in Colorado in 2017 in response to US Supreme Court rulings that deemed juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional. People who meet certain requirements—for example, if they were under 21 when they committed felony crimes and have been incarcerated for a minimum of 20 to 30 years—can apply to work through the three-year Juveniles and Young Adults Convicted as Adults Program (JYACAP) in an effort to earn early parole. 

The premise of JYACAP is that learning the basic skills they missed the chance to acquire while incarcerated will provide these juvenile lifers with their best chances for success upon release. That’s a formidable challenge. Because of safety concerns, they have had limited access to the internet. Though they’re now adults, many have never used, or even seen, a smartphone or a laptop. Or had a credit card. “We had to figure out a way of giving them these opportunities in a restricted environment,” says Melissa Smith, interim director of prisons for the Colorado Department of Corrections. 

Though its use is not yet widespread, a handful of state corrections departments, from Ohio to New Mexico, have turned to virtual reality as an answer. The goals vary from helping reduce aggressive behavior to facilitating empathy with victims to, as in Colorado’s case, reducing recidivism. Though the state’s prison budget sits close to $1 billion, Colorado has one of the worst return-to-prison rates in the country, at around 50%. Nationally, as many as two-thirds of the 600,000 people released from state and federal prisons each year will be rearrested within three years.

Is VR the long-missing piece in an unwieldy puzzle of resources and programs meant to help reverse these statistics? Or is it yet another experiment that will fail to adequately prepare incarcerated individuals for life beyond lockup? “It’s not going to be the silver bullet, but it is a tool that I think is very powerful for a lot of people, because they never really get a chance to practice what we’re trying to teach them,” says Bobbie Ticknor, an associate professor of criminal justice at Valdosta State University. “I think we should use everything we can find and see what works the best.” 

Proponents like Ticknor say VR can immerse incarcerated people in the sights and sounds of modern life and help them develop digital literacy in a secure corrections environment. “When you’re role-playing, when you’re learning a new skill, the closer you can bring them to doing what they’re actually going to have to do out in the real world, the better,” says Ethan Moeller, founder and managing director of Virtual Training Partners, which helps organizations successfully implement virtual-­reality tools. “VR does that better than any other training medium.” 

Others are more skeptical. Like Dr. Cyndi Rickards, an associate teaching professor at Drexel University who leads weekly criminology courses inside Philadelphia prisons. People who are incarcerated wear the “label of inmate on their back. It’s a dehumanizing system,” she says, “so to suggest that VR is going to reintegrate them into society after being in a punitive system…just further objectifies folks, it continues a pattern of dehumanizing folks, and I’ve not read any compelling evidence that this is the route we should use to integrate people to be members of a healthy and contributing society.”

Rainer believes the grocery store simulation was beneficial but is aware that the real world, should he step back into it, will be very different from the video-game-like version he’s interacting with at Fremont. “Going back to society, I don’t want to freeze up while I’m in a grocery store or something, not figuring out what I need to buy because [there are] too many options,” he says. “I don’t really like working on a computer, but I know I got to.”  

As VR technology grows more affordable, the programming becomes an increasingly budget-friendly option for states that are already dealing with persistent workforce shortages. “If we reduce recidivism rates, it actually helps the community and reduces crime,” explains Sarah Rimel, the former technology research program manager at Colorado’s National Mental Health Innovation Center. “It reduces the amount of money that’s put into the prison systems.”

VR has proved a beneficial therapeutic tool, helping to lower depression rates, reduce anxiety, conquer phobias, promote emotional empathy, and address post-traumatic stress. VR exposure therapy has been successfully used to help vulnerable populations such as veterans and sexual-assault survivors confront, and better cope with, their triggers and trauma. All that research is based on interventions done with people who are not incarcerated, however. 

The currently available evidence in correctional settings is limited and mostly anecdotal. But there have been some positive findings. For example, a short-term pilot initiative in Alaska that incorporated mindfulness techniques through VR resulted in decreased reports of depressive or anxious feelings and fewer disciplinary write-ups. In Michigan, a virtual-reality tool for job interview training, originally developed for people with serious mental illness, was piloted with 44 men involved with the justice system. The findings, published in March 2022, showed that 82% of those who used the tool landed a job within six months of being released, compared with 69% of other program participants. When variables like age, race, and time served were taken into account, the data suggested that those who used the tool had 7.4 times greater odds of getting a job. “Above just the employment rate, those that interviewed with Molly [the virtual hiring manager] had stronger interview skills over time, greater reductions in interview anxiety over time, and greater increase in motivation to interview over time,” says Matthew Smith, a professor of social work at the University of Michigan, who led the effort. He and his team are now enrolling a larger group in a validation study.

Colorado doesn’t have any data sets to point to. Only one of the 16 people who’ve been released through JYACAP over the course of almost three years have been rearrested. Two of those 16 were paroled before completing the full curriculum. “If the right scenarios are used,” says Cheryl Armstrong, one of the first JYACAP graduates, “it [VR] is helpful, to a certain extent, to give you an idea of what you’re going to be facing.”

While Valdosta State’s Ticknor estimates that fewer than 10% of corrections facilities are currently using VR simulators with incarcerated individuals, she expects that to change soon. “I would be very surprised within five years if this is not a very regular treatment modality for this particular population,” she says.

Daliah Singer is a freelance journalist based in Denver.

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