Prisoners in a cold, dark jail cell…
Few other groups of people would conceivably be more interested in VR. An Oculus Rift would take them outside the prison gates. It would transform the white walls of solitary confinement into blue skies over a Hawaiian beach.
But offering a toy for escapism barely even scratches the surface of what VR could do for prisoners, at least according to Dr. Raji Wahidy, founder and CEO of New York-based Virtual Rehab.
VR’s Potential in Prisons
Virtual Rehab, which has yet to launch publicly, aims to prepare prisoners for life after release through education and simulation, especially by putting inmates in another person’s (e.g., a victim’s) shoes. The company offers several specific types of immersive correctional services and rehabilitation programs, especially for sex offenders, domestic violence perpetrators, and other prisoners:
- Formal education: prisoners sit in immersive virtual classrooms to strengthen their knowledge of English, Business, Mathematics, Sciences, Technology, and more.
- Vocational Job Training: prisoners use haptics-enabled VR hardware to do tasks such as replacing car batteries, fixing plumbing, welding metal, and cutting wood.
- Psychological and Correctional Services Rehabilitation: prisoners simulate scenarios as criminals, bystanders, and victims facing the types of situations that got them into jail in the first place.
The company certainly hopes these activities will help prisoners stay out of trouble and develop useful skills for work after their release, all leading to reduced recidivism worldwide.
A Captive Market Waiting to be Unlocked (sorry for the puns… I had to)
The prison market is not an insignificant niche, and it faces real recidivism problems that need to be addressed. The Institute of Criminal Policy Research estimates the total global prison population is currently sitting at around 10.5 million, of which 2.2 million are in the United States. In 2016, the US government allocated $8.8 billion for prisons and detention, and Virtual Rehab estimates $35.2 billion will be spent globally on prisons and detention this year. In spite of all of this spending, some of which goes to bringing in therapists and psychologist to help prepare prisoners for release, the US National Institute of Justice still found that two out of three offenders who leave prison return within three years, and 75 percent return within five years.
So, the prison market isn’t huge, but it has substantial government budgets and a clear problem to solve. Few companies are likely to go after this niche, but it could be a compelling first stepping stone for broader growth into therapeutic or rehabilitative VR (e.g., in drug rehab centers).
Looking Through the Fence
Only time will tell whether Wahidy’s business idea remains a fleeting, virtual experience or becomes a full-fledged reality. But in the meantime, Wahidy continues discussions with government officials in all US states, as well as venture capitalists, and sees meaningful challenges ahead. For one, regulations on using technology in prison are inconsistent from state to state within the US and from country to country, making it different to scale Virtual Rehab services.
Secondly, the company will need to nail down its value capture and go-to-market strategies. Should it market itself as a services business (e.g., a field rep takes a set of HMDs for prisoners to use during weekly scheduled visits), or should it try a different model such as giving hardware to prisons for free in exchange for software subscription fees?
Thirdly, one struggles to imagine the sales cycle into governments and prisons being very quick. There probably isn’t a lot of budget surplus just sitting around waiting to be spent on new technologies for prisoners, so Virtual Rehab may have to displace some of the budget currently allocated to therapists and psychologists. But doing won’t likely be easy. Government and prison officials might struggle to see why VR is necessary or superior to existing solutions. They might view VR as a toy, rather than a tool for creating social impact.
Still, in spite of these challenges, Wahidy seems determined and optimistic: “Leveraging Virtual Rehab, inmates will better learn the correct actions that they should take when confronted with the same scenarios that got them in trouble (since Virtual Rehab will allow them to experience such real-life scenarios)…It’s a win-win scenario. We’re going to lower our taxes, build a better community, build a better future for those who deserve a second chance in life.”
I hope Wahidy is right, and I’m eager to see Virtual Rehab grow.