The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DoC) is piloting new virtual reality (VR) technology to help “promote healthy relationships and engagement between incarcerated parents and their children.”
The DoC is partnering with the nonprofit Amachi Pittsburgh and technology provider Wrap Technologies on the pilot program. In a press release, DoC said the collaboration builds on the DoC’s existing InsideOut Dads and Parenting Inside Out programs, which are designed to improve communication skills, facilitate the showing and handling of feelings, and introduce effective discipline techniques.
“The overwhelming majority of incarcerated parents will return to their families and communities at the conclusion of their prison sentence, and the DoC is committed to setting them up for success,” said Acting DoC Secretary George Little. “Practice makes perfect, and we hope role playing with the assistance of virtual avatars will help parents and children see beyond facility walls and build stronger families and safer communities.”
Through the VR immersion, participants will learn and practice healthy parenting skills in “a 360-degree environment.” DoC notes that each VR interaction is guided by a lesson plan and managed by DoC staff, who have the ability to adapt and customize the situations in real time.
“Our team is thrilled to partner with the PA Department of Corrections and Wrap to provide VR experiences for our youth and parents,” said Anna Hollis, executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh. “VR is a new, innovative way for us to pique interest, attract new participants and spark learning, creativity and imagination.”
Children do not have to travel to a DoC facility to participate in the pilot. Rather, community providers Amachi Pittsburgh and Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC) in Philadelphia facilitate the virtual reality visits for participating children.
“In our work with incarcerated individuals, we know that it is extremely important to have family support, including engagement with children,” said Laurie A. Corbin, PHMC managing director for community engagement. “We hope the parent and child will have a fun and educational experience which will provide them with happy memories despite their physical separation from each other.”
To evaluate the success of the program, DoC has tapped researchers from the Pennsylvania State University as evaluators.
“We are excited to work alongside the DoC and community partners to evaluate this new and innovative program. We hope the results will illuminate more ways for incarcerated parents and their children to enjoy learning together,” said Sara Brennen with the Penn State Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center and the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy in the College of Education.