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VR in prisons

Catalina Alarcón Reyes is a female pioneer that’s bringing hope and visibility to inmates in Chile’s prisons with her latest project Volver a casa VR (Back home VR). This project that started as a filmmaking workshop in two prisons, one in Santiago de Chile and the other in Valparaiso, where inmates could learn about filmmaking soon turned into something greater, it was able to give back people the “sense of being”, lost due to incarceration. Volver a casa VR is a fully funded project, the budget allowed the team to pay for equipment, travel expenses, hire personnel and have a research period.

Adding VR to this project was a game changer for the people involved, I understand that there are many reservations when it comes to inmates and how society tends to split people into two categories, the good ones, and the bad ones and once you’re bad you never seem to able to get out of that label. But life is not black and white and there’s more once you go beneath the surface. We cannot deny that as humans, inmates have emotional and physical needs just like any of us. We need better support systems that will allow a person to thrive regardless of their upbringing and maybe then we wouldn’t have to overcrowd prisons with people who don’t stand a chance just because they started last. I’m talking about having a better support system for mental health issues, sexual inclinations that are considered a sickness to society, domestic violence, drug addiction and so on. Things everyone seem to have an opinion on but are not being seen as part of the human society. Technology will be a key element in improving everyone’s lives and not only for the ones who can afford it.

 Virtual Reality has the potential to help inmates to learn how to thrive in the outside world, after being locked up for so long, the world has dramatically changed for them and they need tools in order to understand this new world and what’s expected from them. There are VR apps such as 6×9, The Guardian’s first virtual reality experience, which places you inside a US solitary confinement prison cell and tells the story of the psychological damage that can ensue from isolation and Prison VR
even though this experience is more on the gaming side it still shows the precarious state of the cells and the urge that people have to get out. You have 14 minutes to complete the game or you will be locked in the cell forever.


Interview with Catalina Alarcón Reyes

Mindfully Augmented(MA): What’s the most remarkable thing you’ve noticed when the inmates used VR for the first time?
 Catalina Alarcón Reyes(CAR): One thing that stood out was the way they reacted kinetically to VR. While this is not a virtual reality experience in which they can interact with their families directly, the fact of being able to move in 360 degrees made their bodies move in the direction of the video. They answered questions their families were asking, trying to interact in a real way.
I believe that this experience is an immersive one. It’s immersive for the inmate that’s experiencing the 360 recording in virtual reality and for the inmates around her,  that are listening to the audio of the inmate’s family video. It ‘s immersive for myself and team because we’re in charge of recording the families, generating a connection bridge between the prison and the outside world.
 It was also remarkable to perceive changes in their personalities as we advanced in the film workshop and then in the virtual reality experience. They were more perceptive, sensitive to certain issues, grateful to our team, empathic with the rest of the inmates, not to mention that they became more responsible for the workshop. Without a doubt, the film experience and VR the experience changed something inside them.
MA: Do you think VR can improve the quality of life?
CAR: When we talk about VR in prison, virtual reality can work as a tool to connect places. In this case, it’s a political gesture to transfer the inmates from the “jail space”, a violent, isolated place, where they often see their human rights violated; to a pleasant and familiar space, where they feel loved and visible. Being able to see their families again, reconnects them with their most human and empathetic side, where a feeling of infinite emotion and love is produced in them. In this way, the inmates are able to feel feelings that they thought had disappeared. And these abilities to love and generate empathy disappear not only because they are in a place where they have been isolated for committing a crime, but these abilities disappear also because society is convinced that certain of people should never be free and in consequence, society thinks they are never going to change. Society is built so that certain type of people belonging to certain social classes remain in jail. VR as a tool to connect lives is completely necessary not only to connect inmates and their families, which could help to the mental health and emotions of the inmates but also to create a bridge between the outside world and the inmates. This, without a doubt, would create a more empathetic society, where the human rights of inmates would be acknowledged.
Chile is a deeply classist country, where inmates of prisons are judged and mistreated many times in an excessive way. An experience like Volver a casa VR reconnects them to the outside world but also reminds them that there are people who still believe that they can change, helps them reconnect with emotions and narrows distances, giving them the possibility of believing in their own humanity.
MA: How do you, as a filmmaker forsee the inclusion of VR in your next projects?
CAR: Undoubtedly, Volver a casa VR is and will be my project for a long time. We have psychologists and Sociologists on board that are helping us measure the real impact that the project has on the inmate’s life and understand which exercises help enhance the skills and emotions that emerge thanks to VR. They are also in charge of the emotional impact of the experience, supporting them in a group and one to one.
We hope that this project has transcendence and continuity in the prisons in which we are working and we hope that we can take this project to other regions of Chile. The main idea is always to give the inmates the possibility to reconnect with the outside world and with their most intimate feelings,  I faithfully believe that this filmmaking workshop can make a difference in their lives.
MA: What’s one thing that you would like people to know about Volver a casa VR?
CAR: Volver a casa is a project created by an incredible group of women, who strongly believe that art and cinema can reconnect lives, making us reflect on who we are but also about who we were. This project is not only a virtual reality experience, it’s also a documentary film workshop where inmates can experience different formats of documentary filming, creating short films, watching movies and reliving on different themes that connect them with their emotional, family and personal memory. This project without a doubt, is a bridge between the outside world and the prison, we hope it can continue to expand and get deeper about how society speaks about prisons, about the inmate’s quality of life, about their families and the social reinsertion, and where technology is thought as a space to help connect stories.



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