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Using Virtual Reality to Prepare Inmates for Release

Colorado is using virtual reality technology as part of a new program to help some longtime inmates prepare for possible release and life outside of prison.

The Juveniles Convicted as Adults Program (JCAP) began in fall 2017 at the medium security Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City. The three-year program targets felony juvenile offenders, convicted and sentenced as adults for serious crimes, who have served at least 20 years of their sentences. Currently there are nine male inmates in the program.inmate using virtual reality headset

The program includes classroom instruction on a range of topics, from job skills training to health care concepts and time management to dealing with confrontational situations. Virtual reality is being used as part of the program to immerse inmates in a lifelike environment and familiarize them with modern ways of doing activities such as grocery shopping with automated checkout, laundry, and how to conduct themselves during a job interview. Inmates must complete the three-year program to be considered for early release by a review panel.

“This program was created to help this group of offenders build skills or use tools that they did not get to use because they have been incarcerated while they were young and in the majority of their adulthood,” says Melissa Smith, education program administrator for the Colorado Department of Corrections. “This program is to deliver training and allow them to build life skills, coping skills, daily life functioning skills, technology skills, cognitive education, business and career technology, college aptitude — everything and anything that we could possibly create in an environment for them to learn and practice. It was truly developed to help provide these offenders with the opportunity to gain real-world knowledge of what today’s environment and society is like and how to interact in that environment.”

The virtual reality portion of the program includes, for example, interactive scenarios on interviewing for a job, how to deal with a difficult individual, conflict with an angry customer, how to clean an apartment, how to order from a full-service restaurant, conflict with an angry boss, refusing drugs on a street corner, how to use a cellphone, and avoiding a fight with an angry man.

The program is continually accepting applications from inmates, which are reviewed through a committee and the director of prisons. Applicants must meet certain qualifications to be accepted into the program.

As far as reaction from initial program participants, Smith says, “They are very excited about it. I think in the beginning they were nervous about whether this was something they could grasp or could learn, and so with their comfort of knowing that they can be successful utilizing these new technologies and these new tools, we’ve seen a lot more ease and excitement for learning.”

In the spring, the department plans to establish the same program for women at the La Vista Correctional Facility, a medium security facility in Pueblo. Corrections agencies in several states have also inquired about the program.

For more information, contact Melissa Smith at Melissa.smith@state.co.us.

Article photo: The Pueblo Chieftain