Can Virtual Reality Videos Put a Dent in Mass Incarceration?

Project Empathy is using the emerging medium to force action on criminal justice reform.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker watches virtual reality video ‘The Letter.’
Sep 16, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sean Eckhardt is TakePart's editorial fellow.

What is it like to be an eight-year-old girl seeing your mom go to prison—or to be a man spending seven years in solitary confinement? The United States has the largest prison population in the world, but the average American might still have a tough time understanding what it’s like to be affected by mass incarceration. As a result, there’s not much pressure on elected officials to change the nation’s laws around it.

Now a new virtual reality series hopes to show the public that folks who are locked up aren’t monsters or superpredators by allowing viewers to see the world through the eyes of the incarcerated.

The effort, Project Empathy, is the brainchild of Dream Corps founder and CNN contributor Van Jones and Benefit Studios founder Jamie Wong. The pair hope the videos in the series will foster a sense of empathy toward the incarcerated and their families regarding the circumstances that can lead to prison.

RELATED: Coalition Works to Have One Million Fewer People Behind Bars

“There’s an empathy gap between people who live in communities that are overly policed and overly incarcerated and people who live in communities that are not,” Jones said in an interview with TakePart. “It’s very important to try to get people pathways to more empathy and more understanding.”

Based on true stories of Americans affected by incarceration, the videos, Wong said, explore “the four most pivotal moments that define the prison experience”—vulnerability, sentencing, lockup, and solitary confinement—through the eyes of different characters.

Virtual reality is associated with video games, entertainment, and pornography, but Project Empathy uses the emerging medium to drive social change. The series immerses the viewer in an alternative world where one can feel what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.

The project’s approach to building understanding is based in research. An ongoing study at Stanford University has found that virtual reality can be used to establish a sense of empathy toward a range of topics. From fostering a desire to preserve the earth to inspiring more volunteering to reducing meat consumption, the Stanford researchers have found that virtual reality can instill in a person an alternate perspective, which has some referring to the technology as an “empathy machine.”

“This is the way we work as humans. We understand the world through stories,” Wong told TakePart. “At the core of this is an effort to humanize the issue and remind all of us again, because the words ‘mass incarceration’ don’t mean much to us.”

The first video, The Letter, which premiered at the Democratic National Convention in July, takes viewers into the experience of Shaka Senghor, a man who was incarcerated in Michigan for 19 years, seven of them in solitary confinement. The video shows the circumstances that led Senghor to the system: an abusive childhood and a neighborhood plagued by gang violence and the crack cocaine trade.

The second video, Left Behind, which was written and directed by Empire and Hell’s Kitchen producer Wendy Calhoun, premiered on Wednesday in Los Angeles at “Race + Justice: An Atlantic Summit.” The video, based on interviews with people affected by mass incarceration, depicts the story of a girl whose mother is arrested for dealing drugs. The eight-year-old ends up in a foster home.

“For a child, this almost shapes the entire narrative of life from that moment forward,” Calhoun told TakePart. “We take some real stories that we’ve heard [and] put them in one place, which allows people to have an experience that they wouldn’t have had unless they had gone through this traumatic life path.”

Project Empathy plans to release another video in the series about juveniles caught up in the adult justice system, Wong said. The group is also gearing up for a nationwide demonstration to be held on March 1, 2017. Volunteers plan to hand out virtual reality viewers at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and at the statehouses of all 50 states. The hope is that passersby and elected officials will view the clips and put pressure on lawmakers to end mass incarceration.

Jones said the date was chosen because it’s a day that most state legislatures, along with the U.S. Congress, will be in session. He hopes that the videos can make mass incarceration a less political issue and foster a conversation that makes a solution more attainable.

“Empathy does not imply or require agreement, but it does help to reduce inflammation where disagreement persists,” Jones said. “Disagreement, handled poorly without empathy, can lead to dissolution of basic civic ties and basic understanding, and that’s very dangerous.”