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Getting to the Heart of America's Prison Problem

An innovative new program mixes VR with theatre to help people in prison.

Key points

  • The nation has a prison problem that disproportionately impacts people of color.
  • Creative Acts has a performing arts/virtual reality prison program that builds emotional and vocational skills.
  • Creative Acts' sessions provide a supportive environment to help participants explore the strong emotions that come with reintegration.
Sam Richardson, used with permission
Source: Sam Richardson, used with permission

The United States has a prison problem. Over two million people are incarcerated in the US, far more than any other country, whether you compare for population or not. Many more people are also waking up to the fact that the US prison system is also a racial justice problem.

More Black people are incarcerated than white people, even though white people make up 60 percent of the U.S. population compared to Black people’s 13 percent. Fortunately for all of us, Sabra Williams’ organization Creative Acts has a solution that uses modern technology to get to the heart of the issue.

Virtual Reality Reentry Program

Creative Acts brings the performing arts to prisons. One of their programs, in partnership with sankofa.org, uses virtual reality to allow incarcerated people to explore life outside of prison and deal with the intense emotions that go along with the experience. The Creative Acts’ teaching artists create a safe space where participants can grapple with feelings of shame, embarrassment, and anger that come with interacting in a world that looks quite different than when they were first imprisoned.

When I spoke with Sabra, she emphasized the emotional training of her program. Participants often experience using the full range of their emotions during Creative Acts’ workshops for the first time since being incarcerated.

For example, during a workshop, a participant might discuss checking out at the grocery store or walking down a crowded street. The Creative Acts’ teaching artists then create virtual reality footage of these specific experiences. Participants can then experience a simulation of maneuvering through a self-checkout lane or walking through Times Square.

Creative Acts’ emphasis and focus on vulnerability and empathy allows participants a safe and supportive environment to explore experiences that may trip them up after they’re released from prison. Sessions are each four hours long for seven consecutive days.

To create this safe, supportive environment, Creative Acts brings the performing arts to participants. Williams is a classically trained actor, and Creative Acts’ sessions mirror that background by allowing participants to explore their emotions and kinesthetic awareness. In an unjust society, Creative Acts creates a space for people to explore without hierarchies and with a sense of experimentation and joy.

Sam Richardson, used with permission
Source: Sam Richardson, used with permission

Participants also use the virtual reality headsets to explore parts of the world they’ve never seen or experience new perspectives, such as seeing the Earth spinning from space. As one participant put it, “Seeing the outside world...that was big for me,” and another, “Seeing the Earth move and revolve, I had no idea how fast...shows me there is a lot out there, and somehow I fit in with the world spinning so fast.”

Instead of feeling disconnected and hopeless, Creative Acts’ performance-based, virtual reality program is helping people feel connection and hope. Williams hopes to expand this technology to help people gain invaluable job training experience that will help set them up for success once they’re out of prison.

One of the espoused goals of the United States Department of Justice is to “facilitate the reintegration of inmates into society.” Call this recidivism or reintegration. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Creative Acts’ virtual reality program does exactly that. Sessions help participants explore the strong emotions that come with reintegration in a supportive environment where the stakes are lower, and it’s okay to make mistakes. This obviously sets them up for future success once they’re finally released.

Founder Sabra Williams is impressive. She’s mission-driven and believes in her work deeply. I should mention that the virtual reality prison program is one of three Creative Acts’ programs. They also run a civic engagement program called Art Attacks (which resulted in a 100% voter turnout) and an anti-racism program (also arts-based). Sabra Williams has been engaged in this transformative work for more than 15 years; she was the founding director of the Actors’ Gang Prison Project before co-founding Creative Acts.

Many people have only started waking up to racial inequities in the past couple of years, while Williams has been walking the walk, sparking real change, for years.

Mr. Rogers said to look for the helpers; Williams is one of the helpers, and Creative Acts has the power to help.

References

Creative Acts. (2021). Creative acts virtual reality reentry program pilot impact report 2021. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a4fc7a4fe54ef5ec718e4e3/t/61438…

Creative acts. Creative Acts. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from https://www.creativeacts.us/.

Organization, mission and functions manual: Federal Bureau of Prisons. The United States Department of Justice. (2021, October 27). Retrieved November 11, 2021, from https://www.justice.gov/jmd/organization-mission-and-functions-manual-f….

Statista Research Department. (2021, June 2). Ranking: Most prisoners per capita by country 2021. Statista. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/262962/countries-with-the-most-pris….

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