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VR training prepares prisoners for life after release

Tiffany Joseph Busch, 36, learned how to change oil without ever touching a real car during her first week of training. Instead, she trained in a virtual garage using a Meta Quest VR headset at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCIW). Busch, who is due to be released in June after years in prison, is among the first trainees to use VR training to prepare for a job as an auto technician.

VR technology, often considered niche and primarily for gamers, is now being used at MCIW in collaboration with Baltimore-based nonprofit Vehicles for Change. This initiative aims to reduce recidivism by providing accessible job training to incarcerated individuals to ensure they have clear pathways to well-paying jobs upon release. Demand for auto technicians in the United States is high, and many positions offer salaries above Maryland’s minimum wage of $15 per hour.

Martin Schwartz, president of Vehicles for Change, emphasized the potential impact of such programs: “It’s about getting people a job that leads to a career, and we can keep people out of prison.” The nonprofit originally Offering in-person training, they switched to VR during the pandemic to continue their training safely.

HTX Labs, a software company known for developing VR training for the US Air Force, has developed the Auto Mechanic VR program. Beyond MCIW, this VR training is being tested in correctional facilities in Texas and Virginia.

For the Maryland Department of Corrections, VR training is an efficient solution to quickly expand professional training. Carolyn Scruggs, Maryland’s secretary of public safety and correctional services, highlighted collaboration with the state’s Department of Labor to assess labor market needs. VR headsets, which cost nearly $500 each, offer a cost-effective alternative to building physical training rooms and enable advanced training in just a few weeks.

Danielle Cox, director of education at Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, noted that the VR program allows women to quickly gain skills and secure jobs after release. The program at MCIW has graduated 15 women across its three cohorts to date.

Participants like Meagan Carpenter value VR training for its immersive experience. “You can escape from this place and it reminds you that there is something outside of here,” Carpenter said. The program prepares trainees for tire lubrication technician roles and the Automotive Service Excellence exam, ensuring they are job-ready.

Despite the skepticism about learning practical skills virtually, trainees are confident in their abilities. Schwartz believes VR training will become a standard method for skilled trades, highlighting the potential to provide education to marginalized populations who cannot afford traditional schooling.

“Virtual reality will transform prison education, close the skills gap and help alleviate poverty,” Schwartz said.

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