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)

VR as the Next Step

I believe the next great innovation in inmate education is virtual reality (VR).

With VR, we will have the ability to virtually place the inmate into a well-outfitted training facility. They can train in a metal shop, or they can fit pipe and learn to be a plumber. More importantly, we can allow an inmate to gain societal experiences while in the mutually safe space within the facility.

The possibilities are virtually limitless. We can build industry certifications into the software so inmates can exit incarceration with the skills and experience they need to enter high-paying career and technical positions.

Of course, this type of career and technical training will not be limited to inmates. High schools will be able to offer the types of training that were previously limited to community colleges. With many high schools beginning to offer a simultaneous track towards an associate degree, the financial benefits to both the student and the district are enormous.

VR programs of this type are currently under development. The cost of the headsets varies, from cardboard headsets at under $10 to premium brands like the Oculus Rift for around $500. But even the most expensive prices pale in comparison to the cost of buying actual shop equipment, hiring instructors and outfitting and paying for a physical space. Much like flight simulators in aviation or VR instruction now in medical schools, virtual reality will soon be used to teach trades and technical careers.

The cost savings for both prisons and high schools will be significant. The opportunity cost of not embracing this new technology will be much higher.

The pathways to career for our children now in school are uncertain at best. VR technology will change that for a large percentage of our learners.

The cost of recidivism for our inmates is currently in the tens of billions. Proper career training can lower the recidivism rate from 67 percent to 13.7 percent. Figure that into a population of inmates that exceeds three million and a housing cost of $31,000 per inmate, and you can begin to see a strong financial opportunity for our communities, states and federal government.

Of course, the real payoff is millions of people who will have an opportunity to live substantive and productive lives with their children, post release. The payoff on that? Priceless.

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