Alaska has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country, with more than two-thirds of inmates who leave prison returning within three years. It's an ongoing problem the Alaska Dept. of Corrections has long sought to solve. 

Now, the DOC is partnering with the University of Colorado to try something new -- training inmates in the skills they'll need to succeed in life outside of prison using virtual reality.

A group of researchers from The University of Alaska and the University of Colorado has been testing the software with inmates around Alaska. 

"All of the work with corrections in VR is really brand new and that's why we're really excited about this," said Matt Vogl, executive director of the National Mental Health Innovation Center at the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Campus. "We thought if we can make things work in Alaska then we can probably make them work just about anywhere."

Vogl describes the challenges in Alaska's Dept. of Corrections as 10 times that of other states.

"Because of the great distances and the lack of availability of a workforce that's here. Some of the unique issues related to seasonal effective issues and the lack of sunlight in the winter," Vogl explained. 

But, something as simple as a headset can trick your brain and take you to another place. With virtual reality, inmates at Goose Creek Correctional Center can meet new people so they can practice the skills they'll need to live on the outside someday -- like answering tough questions in a job interview.

"What is the benefit to hiring you?" a virtual interview asks the inmates. 

"So, those are going to be tough questions that you might not be used to thinking in those terms -- in terms of what value do I bring to another organization?" Vogl explained. 

Other scenarios including responding to an angry customer at work or a stranger who may be looking to pick a fight. 

"We need a lot more feedback on the kinds of dialogue that really trips people up," Vogl said of testing the technology with inmates. "I think some of the most valuable information that we'll get are from people that were in prison and then got released and ended up going back because then they can say, 'if I had had this kind of training or someone had explained this to me, I might not have come back in.'"

Saietta Kasak is an inmate with that perspective, having been in and out of the system for around 30 years. 

"The biggest challenge that you're going to have to face is yourself. It's you. You can say you want different things for your life and stuff, that you want to change, but you actually have to put that in action," Kasak said.

As for the virtual reality interview, Kasak says there were parts that were intimidating, adding that it's different than role-playing with corrections staff you're already comfortable with.

"It kind of set me off when he crossed his arms 'cause it's kind of a defensive pose. So, it made me like rescind a little bit and made me a little uncomfortable," Kasak said of the interviewer in the virtual reality program. 

Vogl says virtual reality is more effective in rehearsing behavior than roleplay because it feels real.

"To use the example of someone who's coming out of addiction in a recovery program, right now, to practice refusal skills, the only option is sitting the recovery center and say, 'okay, you pretend like you're offering me a beer and I'll say no. And then I'll pretend that I'm offering you one and you say no.' Well, in VR, we can put you in a bar, we can put you in a heroin den or at a party or, you know, places that are actual using environments," Vogl said, adding that studies have shown virtual reality scenarios can trigger substance cravings. 

Virtual reality offers a way for inmates to put themselves to the test without actually failing. 

Right now, the project is still in the planning stages. By the end of July, the Dept. of Corrections hopes to identify what programs would work best in Alaska, and how much it would cost.

Megan Edge, a spokesperson for DOC, says the department is working to find ways to implement the new technology without spending new state money.

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