What is Project Empathy and why was it created?

Project Empathy is a virtual reality (VR) film series that explores the U.S. Prison System. Through three compelling VR films by award-winning directors, Project Empathy will invite audiences to walk in someone else’s shoes, in order to better understand mass incarceration in America.

What is mass incarceration?

“Mass incarceration” is a term that is often used in the media, but it specifically refers to the huge number of people that are incarcerated in the United States. The United States is the world's leading nation when it comes to putting people in prison. The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population. More than two million people are currently incarcerated in the U.S.

How many people are currently incarcerated in the United States in total?

More than 2.3 million people.

What is virtual reality or “VR”?

Virtual reality has been described as an “empathy machine.” Our team is using VR for the first time ever to create empathy on a massive scale for the millions of Americans behind bars.

VR technology, by many, is considered a new medium -- which goes beyond the linear limitations of film as we know it. Rather, a VR experience allows audience members to feel they are actually in another place and as if they can become another person. It is a 360 degree and 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional view of a new world, which often makes audience members feel as if they have traveled to another place and walked in someone else’s shoes. It changes each audience member from a simple viewer into an active participant in an experience.

Are the stories true?

Each VR film is a composite of true stories, making each VR experience as close to reality as possible, without following any one person’s exact circumstances.  (The YouTube Channel for Project Empathy features real formerly incarcerated persons and tells their true stories.) Read the true stories here.

What was your research process for the films?

We interviewed first-hand sources (the formerly incarcerated) and those who have been affected by the prison system (for example, children who were left behind when a parent went away), policymakers, and officials within the U.S. prison system. We also did extensive research, combining the latest news with historical data on the prison system.

What is the “school-to-prison pipeline”?

The school-to-prison pipeline leads adolescents directly from school (and adolescence) into the justice / prison system. Often for infractions that happen in school that perhaps should remain at school with school system-based penalties (like suspension, detention, etc.) -- are being treated as crimes, leading kids into the justice system early by considering things like school fights -- infractions that can be charged as assaults, for instance.

According to the ACLU: “The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the policies and practices that push our nation's schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  This pipeline reflects the prioritization of incarceration over education.”

The ACLU also counts these as the main contributing factors to the school-to-prison pipeline: Failing public schools, zero tolerance policies at school, and policing of public schools.

What happens to children who are left behind when a parent goes to prison?

The truth about the U.S. prison system is that it affects more than those who are locked behind bars.

There are the remaining family members -- in particular, children -- who are left behind, once a parent is arrested and taken away. Should their mother or father be sentenced and sent to jail -- what is it like for kids whose parents are no longer there?

By the numbers:

  • 2.7 million children have a parent behind bars.

  • 1 in every 28 children has a parent incarcerated (up from 1 in 125, 25 years ago)

  • 1 in 110 white children have a parent who is incarcerated.

  • 1 in 41 hispanic children have a parent who is incarcerated.

  • 1 in 15 black children have a parent who is incarcerated.

  • Black children were 7.5 times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison.

In addition to depression and anxiety disorders, children are relegated to remaining family members or the foster care system. In addition, the disruption of the family circle can lead to financial burden or ruin and have lasting economic impacts on the child for the remainder of his or her life.

What happens to adolescents who end up in adult prison?

Going to prison is a life-altering experience, which can be tough for even the toughest of adults. But what is it like to be sentenced to an adult prison as a kid? If you are under 18 -- usually 16 or 17 years old -- what happens when you enter an adult facility?

Sending youths (those under 18) to adult prisons and jails remains among the most controversial parts of the U.S. prison and penal system at present. Data shows that sending youths through the adult court system and to adult prisons and jails does not increase the chances of the youth rehabilitating or learning from mistakes.

In fact, sending a youth to an adult facility substantially increases the chances that the youth will re-offend. It is also more costly for the prison system to try youths as adults and send them to adult facilities.

About 10,000 youths are detained or incarcerated in adult jails and prisons. Michigan, New York, Texas, and Florida continue to house juveniles with adults.  

According to the National Juvenile Justice Network, youths in adult prisons and jails are at the greatest risk of sexual victimization. Often youths in adult prisons are sexually assaulted within their first 48 hours of incarceration