The United States has the world's highest adult incarceration rate, with over 2.2 million currently in jails and prisons. The female inmate population is rapidly increasing, and there is clear evidence that formerly incarcerated women experience heightened anxiety upon reentry and are not prepared for navigating daily encounters. South Middlesex Correctional Center (SMCC) and the Massachusetts Department of Correction (Female) currently offer many reentry assistance programs, but they wished to present reentry training that is much more memorable and representative so that inmates can anticipate any anxiety-inducing decision-making processes while within the support system of facility staff. The Massachusetts Department of Correction partnered with the Engagement Lab to use virtual reality (VR) technologies to offer inmates controlled, immersive, and game-like exposure to simulated reentry scenarios, prior to their actual release from prison.
In a VR set up, sensory information is delivered through a head-mounted display that is able to track natural head movements, creating a convincing immersive experience. The Lab partnered with the Massachusetts Department of Correction center, South Middlesex Correctional Center (SMCC) to engage a group of users and stakeholders prior to the design of the virtual reality curriculum to better understand the circumstances and experiences that lead to anxiety during reentry, as well as how to integrate this curriculum into existing reentry programming at SMCC and MCI-F. Two core research questions anchored this project: What are the main points of anxiety among recently released inmates that lead to recidivism? How might a VR experience be designed to alleviate those anxieties? The objective of this project was to design a pre-release curriculum using VR technology. The design process was participatory from beginning to end, inviting inmates and those recently released to provide substantive input into the direction of the project. The curriculum was implemented with a cohort at the South Middlesex Correctional Center (SMCC) in Framingham, MA.
"The project has generated some interest from other organizations, and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections is considering scaling the project to other facilities throughout the state.