Prisoners use VR to prepare them for life after release

Prisoners use VR to prepare them for life after release

In the first week of her internship, Tiffany Joseph Busch learned how to change the oil. “If I had known it was this easy then I wouldn’t have paid for an oil change,” he told his instructor.

But Busch never interacted with a real car during practice. Instead, he studied in a virtual garage, using a Meta Quest virtual reality headset.

Busch, 36, is incarcerated at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and is part of an early group of interns learning skills in virtual reality that will prepare them to pursue jobs as auto technicians after their release. For Busch, who expects to be released in June after being incarcerated continuously since the age of 19, the program will give him an important start in rebuilding his life outside of prison.

“It’s horrible that we get some kind of training,” Busch told CNN in an interview at the prison last month. “I’m excited to be able to go home and use what we’ve (learned) here.”

Although virtual reality technology has been around for more than a decade, it is still often considered a relatively niche technology used largely by gamers. But MCIW — in partnership with the Baltimore-based nonprofit Vehicles for Change, which developed the program — is exploring whether VR headsets can make career training opportunities more accessible inside prisons. The main goal is to reduce recidivism rates by ensuring that incarcerated people have a clear path to well-paying employment once they are released.

Across the United States, auto technicians are in high demand; trade groups say the industry sees tens of thousands of unfilled jobs each year. And in Maryland, such positions often pay above the state’s $15 hourly minimum wage.

“It’s not rocket science. It’s about getting people jobs that lead to careers, and we can keep people out of prison,” said Vehicle for Change President Martin Schwartz. “If they can get jobs that will pay $16 to $20 an hour, we can change the trajectory of the recidivism rate.”

Auto mechanic training goes virtual
Vehicles for Change was founded in 1999 to provide affordable cars to low-income families. In 2016, the nonprofit developed an in-person auto technician training program for formerly incarcerated people, where participants would receive paid on-the-job training while repairing cars to go to the organization’s clients.

The organization has relationships with employers such as Napa Auto Parts and AAA, whose representatives serve on its board, to help graduates find full-time employment after completing the program.

But during the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of trainees that Vehicles for Change could safely allow into its garage was limited, so Schwartz began exploring alternative ways to deliver training.

He eventually connected to software company HTX Labs, which had built a virtual reality training program for the US Air Force and later designed an auto mechanic training program for Vehicles for Change.

In addition to MCIW, the nonprofit is also piloting VR auto technician training programs at correctional facilities in Texas and Virginia.

For leaders in Maryland’s corrections department, the VR program provides a way to quickly and easily expand job training for fields in need of workers to the Women’s Correctional Institute. The department of corrections works “very closely with the (state) Department of Labor to determine the needs of the industry, where the vacancies are,” according to Carolyn Scruggs, Maryland’s secretary of public safety and correctional services.

Few other prisons in the state have live mechanic training programs, but building a new garage means finding space and bringing in expensive equipment – a process made more complicated by the strict security measures the prison must maintain. Although the headsets cost nearly $500 each, they are still more affordable than providing a conventional hands-on training program.

“Bringing in VR, it eliminates all the necessary space or funding that we need to build an entire classroom,” said Danielle Cox, director of education at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees the corrections department’s 26 different functions. training program.

“Also, it gives them something in a few weeks that would take longer if they were doing hands-on in the classroom,” Cox said. “So we can get some women … to take this opportunity and actually go out and get jobs once they’re released.”

Now in its third cohort, the program at MCIW has graduated 15 women since it began last year.

‘There’s something out here’
Women at MCIW come to the facility’s gymnasium, reminiscent of a high school gym, for training. When they put on the headset, they are transported to a virtual car repair garage, where they can operate a car lift and use various tools.

When they finish the program, trainees are ready to work as tire lube technicians — roles available at places like Jiffy Lube or Mr. Tire — and for the Automotive Service Excellence exam, a nationally recognized certification for auto mechanics.

“I think the best part about it, for people who are incarcerated, is that you can get away from this place, and it reminds you that there’s something out there,” said Meagan Carpenter, another MCIW intern.

“I want to be able to show my children, especially my daughter, that whatever men can do, we can do better or the same,” she said. “And I want to be a good representative for this program … sometimes we just need that one program to believe in us and give us a chance.”

But is it really possible to learn how to fix a car in virtual reality without ever interacting with a real vehicle? Carpenter said he feels “100% confident in my abilities.”

And Schwartz says he’s sure about the potential of VR training, too. He added that given the need for auto workers, employers are often happy to show trainees how to take what they learn in the digital world to operate safely in a real garage.

“Virtual reality is the number one thing that will be the way we train trade skills in five years across the board,” he said. “This technology is going to change, of course the training (in prison), but it’s going to make a big difference for the marginalized population that we have in this country who can’t afford to go to community college to get an automotive degree or trade school … We’re not just going to fill gap for trade, but we will change poverty in this country by using virtual reality.”

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