See What I See: Virtual Reality as a Conduit for Empathy and Criminal Justice Reform

prison-553836_640Slip on a pair of goggles and virtual reality can send you anywhere. One second you’re in your living room furnished with that couch you found on the corner of the street and the next you’re touring Los Angeles or right there in the 2016 NBA finals watching LeBron James lead Cleveland to victory. Now, virtual reality can also send you to prison.

Project Empathy won’t actually lead to incarceration, but it is a virtual reality program designed to allow people to experience what it is like for those who are incarcerated. The project all started when Jamie Wong, a technology entrepreneur, producer, and director, met Van Jones on a flight to London. Although the two had never met before, they instantly clicked and began to discuss ways that virtual reality could be used to impact change on society. In discussing the project with PCMag, Wong noted that the discussion “ended up in solitary, in a prison cell, directing the first VR shoot, the one you just experienced, with a stereoscopic custom-made GoPro rig and a mission to change the way society views incarceration.”

The Project is designed to highlight the “four most pivotal moments that define the prison experience–vulnerability, sentencing, lockup and solitary confinement” and encourage others to understand the realities of incarceration. Particularly, Project Empathy’s goal is for legislators to understand that the decisions made in the isolation of their meetings have profound effects on millions of people and families. To do this, the team plans to send out “Ambassadors of Empathy” with Virtual Reality headsets to the capitals of all fifty states and to Capitol Hill on March 1, 2017 with the hope that experiencing incarceration through virtual reality will inspire legislators to effect substantial changes within the criminal justice system.

There has been little action on the part of legislators and all government to rectify the issue of mass incarceration in the United States. While numerous low-level drug offenders have been pardoned and released by President Obama, everyone seems to hesitate when it comes to across the board reformation, particularly reformation of the way violent offenders are punished. Many legislators still cling to a “tough on crime” ideology, as do prosecutors.

John Plaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, theorizes that part of what contributes to mass incarceration is the view of the prosecutor’s job as a “launch-pad position” for political aspirations. As Plaff explains, from 1998 to 2004 prosecutor’s decisions to incite felony charges on an arrestee rose from 1 in 3 arrestees to 2 in 3. This “tough-on crime” status is eagerly maintained by overzealous prosecutors for the sake of their political image, leading to a prison population that continues to grow despite the fact that crime rates are going down. One of the keys to reducing mass incarceration, therefore, is to target the district attorney in reformation efforts and, most importantly, to show both legislators and attorneys what their rigid adherence to the concept of “tough-on-crime” actually results in.

The very phrase “tough-on-crime” allows politicians and district attorneys to distance themselves from the people they affect with their decisions. Rather than acknowledging that they are making decisions that will strip individuals of their liberty for years and perhaps for the rest of their life, they are able to frame it as if they are merely targeting the broad concept of crime. They remove the human element from the equation to avoid acknowledging the human consequences.

It is time for legislators and other officials to move beyond this isolated decision making process and come face to face with the reality of those whom they affect.

Project Empathy provides an astounding resource to connect legislators and district attorneys to the human beings subject to the mercy- or lack thereof- of the criminal justice system.  It allows individuals watching the Virtual Reality videos in the Project Empathy series to stand in the shoes of a man in solitary confinement and read a letter his young son has written him or in the place of a young girl left to live in a group home when her mother is arrested and incarcerated on a first time drug offense. It takes case files, prisoner numbers, and statistics and turns them into fully fleshed human beings with families and lives that are irrevocably changed by the criminal justice system. Through Project Empathy, virtual reality can become more than just a new way to experience video games; virtual reality can become a way to engineer social and legal reform.