Is VR education an answer to the U.S. inmate problem?

Education’s new VR frontier may have massive implications for inmates—here’s why.

Are education and incarceration two sides of the same coin or competing industries? The short answer is ‘yes.’ They are both diametrically opposed and intrinsically linked institutions. And everything you do as an educator directly affects both. Can you be a fiscal conservative and at the same time be hard on crime, to the tune of $50 billion a year of taxpayer expense? That answer too is ‘yes,’ while also understanding that the two “schools” of thought are diametrically opposed.

The U.S. holds 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it holds 25 percent of the world’s inmate population. We seem to have an insatiable appetite to incarcerate. Unfortunately, we have not shown an equal appetite for redemption and successful reintegration of these inmates back into society.

Funding Prisons vs. Schools

No one grows up wanting to go to jail or prison. That said, there are over seven million Americans under the supervision of the criminal justice system. From 1980 until 2010, we experienced a 500 percent growth in incarceration. In that same period, we spent three times as much on prisons as schools.

Statistics show that two-thirds of all inmates will return within three years and three-quarters will return within five years. When an inmate earns an associate’s degree, the recidivism rate drops to 13.7 percent. With a bachelor’s degree, the rate drops to 5.6 percent. It costs us $31,000 per year, on average, to house an inmate. The average stay is 5 years. I’ll let you do the math.

Education for inmates could be seen as a fiscally conservative deal.

Tablet Technology for a Different Education

In a study conducted in 2010, titled “An analysis of inmates in Davidson County Tennessee: Factors that Impact Participation in GED program,” it was discovered that the 4 greatest impediments to increased inmate education were poor previous school experience, lack of family support, inmates didn’t believe that a GED would help them to get a job upon release, and lack of access to materials and availability to education facilities.

With technology, these are relatively easy fixes. The other impediments–the stigma associated with education and prior bad experiences with education—are longer-term issues, but can still be encouraged by the use of technology.

Based upon the 2010 study, I founded a company (IDS), which began putting tablets containing academic and vocational courses into jails and prisons. We met with some initial resistance but once we got them into the hands of inmates we started getting some very strong results. A lot of the stigma associated with taking classes was removed, and since the coursework was in the inmate’s hands, the expense of finding instructors and creating classes decreased dramatically.

The tablet program we installed continues to do well and gain traction, but it is still somewhat limited. Inmates have access to materials for reading and studying, but for vocations that require hands-on training they still have little access to training facilities.

(Next page: Harnessing the potential of VR for inmate education)

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