February 12, 2018

Virtual reality prepares long-term prisoners for release

Colorado Prisoner using VR for early release preparation

One of the great problems with long-term prisoners coming to the end of their sentences is how to prepare them for release into society.

The problem is two-fold. Firstly, long-term prisoners tend to become “institutionalized”. That is, they learn to blindly follow the rules, telling them when to eat, where to go to get their food, where to go and what work to do. They do not have the problem of finding a job, attending an interview, managing a budget or choosing where to buy what. Even the decision of what to wear is made for them.

And this extends to things like doing the laundry. Working in the prison laundry is very different from doing personal laundry in an American laundromat or a British laundrette.

And because some prisoners are sent to prison early in life, in many cases they never developed these skills in the first place. In America, juveniles accused of serious offences can be tried as adults.

The second problem is that the developed world is changing at a frenetic pace, so that the way we live and function changes rapidly in as little as a few years. A prisoner incarcerated in 1994 may just about know about mobile phones and the beginnings of the internet, but they will have no experience of smart phones, the worldwide web, search engines or internet shopping. A prisoner incarcerated in 1980 may just about remember cash machines in the big cities, but will probably know nothing about contactless payment.

But the problem is further compounded by yet another problem: some prisoners were never expecting to be released.

Colorado prisoner virtual reality (VR) early release

Prisoner Leroy Gardenhire at Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City using VR to simulate doing laundry in a laundromat. (Meredith Turk/CPR News)

All that changed, however, in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Miller v. California that life without parole sentences for juveniles were a “cruel and unusual punishment” in contravention of the 8th amendment, even in cases of murder. (The previous case of Graham v. Florida (2010) held the same, but for crimes falling short of murder. But the clincher was the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana (US Supreme Court, 2016) that held that the ruling in Miller v. California must be applied retroactively.

The rulings did not guarantee automatic release. It only required that the sentences must be reviewed by a judge. Different states responded differently, but the state of Colorado responded proactively at the legislative level by enacting a law in 2016 that Juveniles who have served 20-25 years of their sentence can be released if they successfully complete a three-year re-entry program.

Colorado is now building the curriculum for that program. The skills that prisoners need for living in the outside world have to be taught, whether it is by books, videos or supervised day-release. But in the Colorado program a new technique is being added to the mix: virtual reality.

This technology enables them to learn not only about the practical side of living life on the outside, but also how to handle the kind of confrontational situations that might make them angry.

Colorado prisoner release virtual reality VR

The pre-release training program using VR (CPR News Meredith Turk)

Virtual reality prisoner release comes to the rescue

“We need to learn how to respond when someone says, ‘You’re a murderer,” says Eric Davis. a 49-year-old who was sentenced to 40 years to life for murder, when he was 17. He can petition for re-sentencing in 2021.

The first facility to introduce the program with virtual reality is the Fremont Correctional Facility (FCF) in the East Canon prison complex in Fremont County, east of Canon City. FCF houses many of Colorado’s convicted sex offenders (85% of the facility’s population) and it is also one of the few prisons in the state to offer a sex offender treatment program.

Currently, nine prisoners at FCF are enrolled in the re-entry program. Their crimes include second degree and felony murder and were committed when they were juveniles. Some were as young as 15 at the time. They were tried and sentenced as adult and have been living in adult prisons ever since being convicted. Most of them are now in their late thirties or early forties.

The program is overseen by Melissa Smith of the Colorado Department of Corrections. She says that while they were conducting research on how to implement the re-entry program, they came across the idea of using virtual reality. She added that the State of Pennsylvania was also experimenting with virtual reality for prisoners, although in a somewhat different way.

The first prisoner to be released in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, under this program, is Daniel Peters, who had been in prison for 34 years, since age of 17. His sentence had been life imprisonment, but that changed with the Miller and Graham rulings. He is one of some 295 Philadelphia inmates to be released under these rulings.

As part of his preparation for release, Peters was transferred to a halfway house in the Callowhill neighborhood on 24 June, 2016. However even this was a daunting experience. But Peters was prepared for the move by being given a virtual reality tour of the facility, so he would know what to expect.

Both these uses of virtual reality in preparing long-term prisoners for release are in their early stages.

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