Australia: The future of correction centres - does virtual reality have a place?

Augmented and virtual reality technology is fast becoming more pervasive and affordable. We are already seeing the technology shift from its traditional use in the video game industry to wider uses in the community. But what does it offer for correctional services? With the ability to reform rehabilitation, education and training, the opportunities for corrections departments, service providers, researchers and the technology industry are only just being discovered.

AUGMENTED REALITY V. VIRTUAL REALITY

Virtual reality refers to technology in which an entire visual, aural (and sensory) environment is created digitally. This immersive experience is achieved through devices which completely obscure vision of the real world. Augmented reality is technology which blends the real world with technological input (think: Pokémon Go).

Augmented reality's particular advantage is interacting with physical stimuli – using technology to enrich our experiences in the real world. Conversely, virtual reality's focus is shutting out reality and replacing it with a constructed (and controlled) version.

Because correctional centres typically have limited physical stimuli (inherent in having a contained, controlled space), virtual reality may be better suited to delivering new opportunities to that environment. While the technology is costly (for now), what are the long-term benefits to the community?

REHABILITATION – OPPORTUNITIES TO BETTER REFORM OFFENDERS

One of the greatest challenges for corrections is the reduction in recidivism. Prisons are seen as 'revolving-door' institutions. It is a key pillar of corrections policy that this must change. Virtual reality presents emerging opportunities for rehabilitating offenders. It is uniquely positioned to reach and treat people through an immersive experience.

The technology has already been used as a treatment for mental illnesses, particularly as a safe and effective form of exposure therapy that can treat numerous illnesses and conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. With approximately 40-50% of prisoners reporting that they have a mental health disorder, this therapy could make an enormous difference to treatment and rehabilitation.

The value of virtual reality is that treatment can be customisable in terms of pace, content and the level to which the participant chooses to be actively involved in the experience. It might be particularly effective in the youth justice space, as young people may be are more comfortable with immersive technology.

EDUCATION AND TRAINING – A SAFER WAY TO LEARN LIFE SKILLS

Another objective of rehabilitation is to prepare offenders for community reintegration at the end of their incarceration.

One of the biggest limitations on how offenders are rehabilitated is safety. Traditional programs and activities offered to prisoners are limited by the need to keep offenders, officers and the community away from dangerous situations. But what if safety was no longer a barrier?

The opportunities provided by virtual reality for education and training are numerous:

  1. It can simulate hazardous environments or situations, without risk to the participant. This would give offenders access to otherwise-dangerous scenarios in which they can learn new skills – such as kitchens or construction sites.
  2. It can give offenders access to worlds outside the prison, without exposing the community to undue risk. It is only a matter of time before prisoners can attend museums and other educational facilities without leaving the prison facilities.
  3. It can reach out to a broader spectrum of people, including low-level learners or those offenders with language barriers.
  4. It saves materials. Once you have the technology in place, the use of it is infinite (subject to it having enough power) because it does not rely on finite physical materials. California has seized this advantage when it rolled out a virtual reality welding program for prisoners, which equipped them with skills without the expense of materials or the risk of harm.

TRAINING AND FACILITIES – MAKING PRISONS SAFER FOR CORRECTIONAL OFFICERS

There is no doubt that prisons are dangerous places. Equipping correctional officers with the right skills to handle incidents is crucial to managing correctional facilities as effectively as possible.

Virtual reality is already being used overseas to prepare law enforcement and military workers with scenario-based training to measure and better manage how they handle events. This concept could be adapted for correctional officers, who could use virtual reality to learn how to deal with disturbances, medical incidents and escapes.

A GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

If virtual reality technology is rolled out in correctional centres, more research will need to go into how to balance its advantages against the disadvantages of cyber-sickness and cyber-dependence.

It will be interesting to see how this technology may be incorporated into correctional centres. Perhaps industry will offer whole-program solutions incorporating virtual reality. Alternatively, correctional services might shape and control the program, partnering with industry to provide the technical solution.

The best thing about virtual reality is that because it measures its use, the more it is used, the more we know about it and the better we can make it. Virtual reality for corrections may be a gift that keeps on giving.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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