Pennsylvania Corrections Uses VR to Prepare Parents for Re-Entry

Pennsylvania Corrections Uses VR to Prepare Parents for Re-Entry

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) is leveraging virtual reality technology to improve relationships between children and incarcerated parents preparing for re-entry into society.

In October 2022, the DOC announced the launch of the new pilot program with two main components: implementing virtual reality technology for visitation between incarcerated parents and their children, and implementing virtual reality technology in parenting programs to improve communication skills.

Complete funding for the virtual reality initiative comes through a $680,000 grant from US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention programs. The grant funded the purchase of 21 Oculus headsets, which have been distributed between participating facilities.

VIRTUAL VISIT

There are 11 virtual experiences that parents and children can participate in. For example, they can speak to each other from the International Space Station or color together in a 360-degree coloring book, Deb Sahd, special assistant to the secretary of corrections at DOC and project lead, explained.

“Like I always say, outside of recidivism, this is about creating a better life for somebody,” said Sahd.

Post-visitation surveys completed by the participating parents will help the DOC evaluate the effectiveness of this program, which will ultimately be evaluated by Pennsylvania State University in late 2023.

For children looking to have a visitation with their incarcerated parents, they can do so with or without traveling to a DOC facility; community providers Amachi Pittsburgh and Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC) in Philadelphia facilitate the virtual reality visits.

These remote visitations through a community provider help to avoid any adverse experiences for children visiting a prison, she said.

Currently, the VR component of the parenting program is available at select state correctional institutions Phoenix, Fayette, Frackville and Muncy.

PREPARING FOR RE-ENTRY WITH VR

The re-entry portion of the pilot program builds on two existing programs — InsideOut Dads and Parenting Inside Out — that aim to help improve communication skills. Now, participants can similarly practice healthy parenting skills but in a virtual reality environment. These experiences are guided by lesson plans and managed by DOC staff.

The participating parent will wear the Oculus virtual reality headset, while staff manage the program through a laptop, selecting dialog or offering guidance to help them improve interactions.

This image shows some of the learning modules available from Wrap Technologies, including “How to Deal with a Family Conflict.”

The program leverages Wrap Technologies’ virtual reality training platform, which focuses on providing the skills and tools needed to prevent recidivism and improve familial relationships.

TJ Kennedy, CEO of Wrap Technologies, explained that one of the benefits of practicing family interactions in a virtual reality setting is that the physical and emotional reactions closely resemble those one would see in a face-to-face interaction. An example he gave was having a conversation about bedtime and setting boundaries in a way that does not create confrontation.

“The goal, really, here is good family and community reintegration,” Kennedy said.

Program participants can select different features in avatars to resemble their own experiences and families more closely — including different ages and sexes. Kennedy said there is also a plan to integrate more language options to the scenarios in the future.

The collaboration process involves the company providing the software and hardware and training the staff within the DOC that will be working with individuals using the virtual reality technology.

While the company offers more general societal preparation of scenarios that have been sold to other corrections departments, the work in Pennsylvania is primarily focused on family re-integration, Kennedy said.

The company also leverages technology in other ways in the public safety industry, with a nonlethal detainment tool and 3D virtual training scenarios.

“We’re here in 2022,” Kennedy stated. “And I think for both societal re-entry, corrections and law enforcement, we’re in a really important place where there is investment that can be leveraged to use new technology.”

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