Virtual reality experience aids Pittsburgh kids with parents behind bars

The equipment allows 360-degree views of an imaginary world in two or three dimensions for shared adventures between kids and incarcerated parents


By Kris B. Mamula
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Kids are getting a better chance to bond with parents who are serving time behind bars thanks to virtual reality, a technology with rapidly expanding uses.

Uptown-based Amachi Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that helps incarcerated parents better connect with their children, is piloting the use of virtual reality to improve communication among family members. In a first of its kind collaboration, the state Department of Corrections and Tempe, Arizona-based Wrap Technologies Inc. are piloting use of the equipment, which allows 360-degree views of an imaginary world in two or three dimensions for shared adventures between kids and incarcerated mothers and fathers.

A state grant of $680,000 is underwriting the three-month trial.
A state grant of $680,000 is underwriting the three-month trial. (Photo/Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Facebook page)

A state grant of $680,000 is underwriting the three-month trial which includes materials for a parenting class being offered virtually at three prisons, including SCI Fayette in Uniontown.

"This is a way to re-establish connections between parents and children," Amachi Pittsburgh Executive Director Anna Hollis said at a news conference last week. "We really want to see this grow."

Image DescriptionAnna Hollis, executive director of Amachi PittsburghPA Department of Corrections)

On any given day in Allegheny County, 8,500 children have a mother or father behind bars, Ms. Hollis said. Some 200,000 children statewide have an incarcerated parent.

Public safety training, entertainment and health care are among the growing number of industries using virtual reality. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is also using virtual reality as the core of a new social platform called metaverse, his latest project.

Using virtual reality in criminal justice rehabilitation will be simpler. Ms. Hollis said incarcerated parents will meet with their child on a Zoom call to choose an imaginary adventure that both will then experience by wearing a headset that covers the eyes.

The shared, immersive experience will lead to improved communication, Ms. Hollis said. Each virtual reality experience will be guided by a lesson plan and managed by state Department of Corrections staff, who will be able to adapt and customize the situations in real time.

Penn State University researchers will assess the effectiveness of the program and children will not have to travel to a prison or jail to participate. Amachi Pittsburgh and Public Health Management Corp. in Philadelphia will facilitate the virtual reality visits.

"The overwhelming majority of incarcerated parents will return to their families and communities at the conclusion of their prison sentence, state Department of Corrections Acting Secretary George Little said in a prepared statement. "Practice makes perfect and we hope role playing with the assistance of virtual avatars will help parents and children see beyond the facility walls and build stronger families and safer communities."

NEXT: For some inmates on the cusp of freedom, virtual reality readies them for release

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