Virtual Rehab: Helping prisoners prepare for life beyond bars

Virtual Rehab is helping prisoners prepare for and experience life after their release.

Prisoners in a cold, dark jail cell…

Few other groups of people would conceivably be more interested in VR. An Oculus Rift would take them outside the prison gates. It would transform the white walls of solitary confinement into blue skies over a Hawaiian beach.

But offering a toy for escapism barely even scratches the surface of what VR could do for prisoners, at least according to Dr. Raji Wahidy, founder and CEO of New York-based Virtual Rehab.

VR’s Potential in Prisons

Virtual Rehab, which has yet to launch publicly, aims to prepare prisoners for life after release through education and simulation, especially by putting inmates in another person’s (e.g., a victim’s) shoes. The company offers several specific types of immersive correctional services and rehabilitation programs, especially for sex offenders, domestic violence perpetrators, and other prisoners:

  1. Formal education: prisoners sit in immersive virtual classrooms to strengthen their knowledge of English, Business, Mathematics, Sciences, Technology, and more.
  2. Vocational Job Training: prisoners use haptics-enabled VR hardware to do tasks such as replacing car batteries, fixing plumbing, welding metal, and cutting wood.
  3. Psychological and Correctional Services Rehabilitation: prisoners simulate scenarios as criminals, bystanders, and victims facing the types of situations that got them into jail in the first place.

The company certainly hopes these activities will help prisoners stay out of trouble and develop useful skills for work after their release, all leading to reduced recidivism worldwide.

A Captive Market Waiting to be Unlocked (sorry for the puns… I had to)

The prison market is not an insignificant niche, and it faces real recidivism problems that need to be addressed. The Institute of Criminal Policy Research estimates the total global prison population is currently sitting at around 10.5 million, of which 2.2 million are in the United States. In 2016, the US government allocated $8.8 billion for prisons and detention, and Virtual Rehab estimates $35.2 billion will be spent globally on prisons and detention this year. In spite of all of this spending, some of which goes to bringing in therapists and psychologist to help prepare prisoners for release, the US National Institute of Justice still found that two out of three offenders who leave prison return within three years, and 75 percent return within five years.

So, the prison market isn’t huge, but it has substantial government budgets and a clear problem to solve. Few companies are likely to go after this niche, but it could be a compelling first stepping stone for broader growth into therapeutic or rehabilitative VR (e.g., in drug rehab centers).

Looking Through the Fence

Only time will tell whether Wahidy’s business idea remains a fleeting, virtual experience or becomes a full-fledged reality. But in the meantime, Wahidy continues discussions with government officials in all US states, as well as venture capitalists, and sees meaningful challenges ahead. For one, regulations on using technology in prison are inconsistent from state to state within the US and from country to country, making it different to scale Virtual Rehab services.

Secondly, the company will need to nail down its value capture and go-to-market strategies. Should it market itself as a services business (e.g., a field rep takes a set of HMDs for prisoners to use during weekly scheduled visits), or should it try a different model such as giving hardware to prisons for free in exchange for software subscription fees?

Thirdly, one struggles to imagine the sales cycle into governments and prisons being very quick. There probably isn’t a lot of budget surplus just sitting around waiting to be spent on new technologies for prisoners, so Virtual Rehab may have to displace some of the budget currently allocated to therapists and psychologists. But doing won’t likely be easy. Government and prison officials might struggle to see why VR is necessary or superior to existing solutions. They might view VR as a toy, rather than a tool for creating social impact.

Still, in spite of these challenges, Wahidy seems determined and optimistic: “Leveraging Virtual Rehab, inmates will better learn the correct actions that they should take when confronted with the same scenarios that got them in trouble (since Virtual Rehab will allow them to experience such real-life scenarios)…It’s a win-win scenario. We’re going to lower our taxes, build a better community, build a better future for those who deserve a second chance in life.”

I hope Wahidy is right, and I’m eager to see Virtual Rehab grow.



Lowe’s: VR, the Future of Retail


Nvidia – The Way It’s Meant to Be Played

Student comments on Virtual Rehab: Helping prisoners prepare for life beyond bars

  1. Thanks for the great post, Adam. Your observation that prisoners are virtually sitting inside their cells with nothing to do and can use VR to learn new skills as well as better understand how to not land in a prison again is fascinating.

  2. This is incredible. But I couldn’t help but wonder how this business can make money and sustain themselves. Most troublesome are private prisons, which I believe get paid per prisoner – what is their incentive to reduce their pipeline of future business? For public prisons, I am not quite sure how the incentives are structured for management but can’t imagine easy adoption knowing the stigmatism associated with prisoners. Their best bet is probably well-funded anti-incarceration nonprofits, which I’m not sure exists.

  3. Interesting read, Adam – thanks for sharing. One thing I wonder is why Virtual Rehab is pigeon-holing itself strictly to the prison market. While it certainly has potential based on your market summary, it seems to me that its capabilities would be easily translatable to other markets like trade schools, corporate employee training programs, and even something like self-defense training. While we have seen via some DIG-IT cases like Aspiring Minds that it is important to focus on one top-priority strategy, given the challenges you mention in the prison market (regulations, long sales cycle, etc.), it may be shrewd to test out other markets as well.

  4. Fascinating model! I agree with Christy’s comment regarding playing in other markets outside prisons. It seems that many of the vocational training materials would be useful in many areas of the economy (high schools, community colleges, professional training programs). Also, I wonder about the political considerations of investing in the education of prisoners when, in many states, there has been public frustration abut prison spending vs. education spending. California, for example, spent $9.6 billion on prisons in 2011 but just $5.7 billion on higher education. The state spends $8,667 per student, per year compared to roughly $50,000 per inmate, per year. ( Would the public really tolerate the education of prisoners with the newest technology when we don’t provide that privelage to our students?

  5. Adam – Great blog about a great idea for a great cause. Thank you!
    The content looks really useful and effective. I am curious how the company is developing the content though. It is such a sensitive topic that the content will have to curated as per the guidelines.
    You raise an important point about the go-to-market strategy. I think there are multiple stakeholders in the ecosystem – users (prisoners), customers (prison administration) and collaborators/influencers (therapists and psychologists whose budget will actually get impacted). While the first two are important, the third one is very important to convince because they must be offering rehab packages in prison currently. Unless they buy into the idea of VR, the prison admin will not embrace the idea. This is similar to pharma industry where the primary case physician, while not being the user or customer, becomes an important part of the decision-making process.
    I would wait to see how Virtual Rehab does.

  6. Thanks Adam! I think this is an outstanding use case for VR. I wonder if there are any studies to show the efficacy of this kind of training (either as a substitute or complementary training method to more conventional rehab programs). I have no doubt that it must be effective, in fact my hunch tells me it can be more effective than traditional methods because of the immersive and personalized nature of the product.

  7. Thanks, Adam – super interesting post! To Ravneet’s point, I wonder how you measure the effectiveness of this type of training, and more broadly (for education) the impact of interacting with others through VR vs. in person. While this is a great idea, I also think it’s a tough sell – to make an impact requires a massive investment in hardware and programs, in environments where sometimes even basic needs are not being met. Curious to see how this company does!

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