Prison contracting giant Global Tel Link Corporation (GTL), which handles a huge chunk of the prison communications industry, has obtained a patent for a system that essentially gives incarcerated people a taste of freedom through virtual reality. The patent itself reads that the system would allow an inmate to "for a brief time, imagine himself outside or away from the controlled environment."
The news signals the continued ways that contractors such as GTL try to monetize their literally captive audience of inmates as well their relatives or friends, be that through charging exorbitant fees for phone calls or by selling inmates access to entertainment via tablets.
"System and method for personalized virtual reality experience in a controlled environment," the patent starts. "A system and method for initiating a personalized virtual reality session via a virtual reality communication system in a controlled environment is disclosed," the abstract adds. Specifically, the system could be used to interact with a second virtual reality user outside the prison, the patent says, presumably as part of a virtual visitation.
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The virtual reality system would also send information about the session to a "monitoring system" for keeping tabs on communications between the inmate and the person outside the prison, the patent adds.
Activist organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) first flagged the patent to Motherboard.
"Global Tel Link's patent for replacing in-person prison visits with virtual reality lays bare the company's ultimate goal of mediating all interactions between incarcerated people and the outside world, all while finding innovative new ways to extract a few more dollars from prisoners and their loved ones," Cooper Quintin, senior staff technologist at the EFF, told Motherboard. "These technologies also erode any last vestiges of in person connection between prisoners and their loved ones on the outside and provide prisons yet another avenue for surveillance."
GTL declined to comment when Motherboard asked whether this patent has been used as the basis for any products.
A class action lawsuit previously targeted GTL for the company's phone call charges. "Families of incarcerated individuals often pay significantly more to receive a single 15 minute call from prison than for their basic monthly phone service," the lawsuit read.
Prisons have previously used virtual reality systems, but for the purpose of rehabilitation and training prior to an incarcerated person's release. In 2017, VICE News visited a class in Colorado using virtual reality to train inmates who had been incarcerated for decades. The idea was to get them ready for life in a world that had rapidly changed, including how to use self-service checkouts in grocery stores and doing their laundry.
Motherboard recently published training documents from VirTra, a company that is using virtual reality to train law enforcement agents. One session was called "Hot tub trio," where a police officer encounters people "in the backyard hot tub, playing loud music and possibly smoking marijuana."
Researchers have even floated the idea of using virtual reality as a punishment in and of itself. A 2020 paper from the Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality outlined a system in which virtual reality could be used to inflict punishment to inmates "to a greater effect or proportion than the crime he or she committed."
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