The Finnish Criminal Sanctions Agency (Rikosseuraamuslaitos) has been utilizing virtual reality (VR) programs as part of prisoner rehabilitation since 2019. Now, in collaboration with Virtual Dawn, the agency is launching virtual reality-assisted prisoner rehabilitation. These programs allow prisoners to practice situations they will encounter upon their release from prison.
Previously, VR programs developed by the University of Tampere and the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District (HUS) have been used.
Currently, these programs are being used in the prisons of Hämeenlinna, Jyväskylä, and Oulu. The Virtual Forest program developed by the University of Tampere has been used in sessions guided by a prison psychologist. The program has been helpful for relaxation and mood regulation.
HUS has created virtual reality programs for anxiety management, which have been utilized with prisoners who experience fear of public places or symptoms similar to panic disorder. Feedback from both prisoners and staff members guiding the programs has been positive, and there is a demand for more programs.
Using virtual reality, everyday situations can be practiced
The latest collaboration in VR rehabilitation is with the company Virtual Dawn. The company's programs allow for the practice of everyday situations that will benefit prisoners upon their release. Virtual reality can be used to simulate situations such as challenging encounters, interactions with authorities, receiving feedback, and job interviews. The programs will be tested in Jyväskylä prison, and systematic feedback will be collected from prisoners participating in the trial.
"The pilot is planned to be carried out, among other things, in the new young adults' unit and possibly as part of the prison workshop's rehabilitative work activities," says psychologist Laura Jernberg, who is guiding the pilot program at Jyväskylä prison.
VR rehabilitation has already been implemented in correctional institutions and forensic psychiatric facilities for several years, and scientific research has been conducted on the topic, including studies in the Netherlands.
"In the Criminal Sanctions Agency, VR rehabilitation has been a valuable addition to other rehabilitative work. I believe that these methods will continue to increase in the future, not only in psychiatry, psychology, and various therapies and treatment approaches but also for educational purposes," says Pia Puolakka, a specialist at the Criminal Sanctions Agency.
The use of virtual reality in prisoner rehabilitation is an innovative approach that has the potential to enhance the reintegration process and prepare individuals for life after incarceration. By providing a safe and controlled environment for practicing real-life situations, virtual reality can equip prisoners with the skills and confidence necessary for a successful transition back into society. As technology continues to advance, VR-based interventions may become increasingly prevalent in correctional systems worldwide.