The Michigan Department of Corrections operates the Vocational Village, a skilled trades training program set within a prison that includes an immersive educational community using virtual reality, robotics, and other technologies to develop employable trades. An enhancement to the Vocational Village could be an evidence-based job interview training component. Recently, we conducted a series of randomized controlled trials funded by the National Institute of Mental Health to evaluate the efficacy of virtual reality job interview training (VR-JIT). The results suggested that the use of VR-JIT was associated with improved job interview skills and a greater likelihood of receiving job offers within 6 months.
The primary goal of this study is to report on the protocol we developed to evaluate the effectiveness of VR-JIT at improving interview skills, increasing job offers, and reducing recidivism when delivered within two Vocational Villages via a randomized controlled trial and process evaluation. Our aims are to: (1) evaluate whether services-as-usual in combination with VR-JIT, compared to services-as-usual alone, enhances employment outcomes and reduces recidivism among offenders enrolled in the Vocational Villages; (2) evaluate mechanisms of employment outcomes and explore mechanisms of recidivism; and (3) conduct a multilevel, mixed-method process evaluation of VR-JIT implementation to assess the adoptability, acceptability, scalability, feasibility, and implementation costs of VR-JIT.
More than 600,000 state and federal returning citizens reenter the community annually  and 44% are rearrested during the first year after their release . Unemployment is often recognized as a critical mechanism of recidivism  as unemployed returning citizens are more likely to recidivate than employed returning citizens . Moreover, gainful employment enables returning citizens to secure housing and pay their bills [5,6], which reduces the incentive to commit crimes  and helps reduce recidivism . Unfortunately, only 25% of returning citizens are employed within 12 months of re-entering their communities . Therefore, there is an urgent need to enhance vocational services for returning citizens preparing to re-enter their communities.
Approximately 50% of state prisons offer vocational services to support employment opportunities after re-entering the community . Although few vocational services delivered in prisons translate into promising reductions in recidivism , even fewer have been rigorously evaluated with a randomized controlled design . Thus, there are promising vocational services that require further evaluation. A recent job acquisition framework suggests active job-search behavior (e.g., job interviewing) is a proximal factor to employment . Nearly all vocational services support practicing job-interview skills because hiring managers ask questions to assess a candidate’s work skills  and social effectiveness [14,15]. Additionally, how one discusses their prior conviction during the interview can influence whether they receive a job offer. Vocational services typically rely on instructors to train interview skills through role-plays. However, instructors are not typically trained to ask open-ended interview questions to facilitate thoughtful responses during the role-plays, give feedback on clients’ levels of anxiety or confidence about interviewing, act like hiring managers, or offer feedback on clients’ responses to improve their interview skills . Thus, a major gap in vocational services is the lack of evidence-based practice used to facilitate job-interview training.
Our team developed Virtual Reality Job Interview Training (VR-JIT), which enhanced interview skills and interviewing self-confidence, and increased the likelihood of receiving job offers across five randomized controlled efficacy trials in lab-based settings among several vulnerable populations (e.g., individuals with schizophrenia, mood disorders, autism, veterans with PTSD) [, , , , ]. As this program of research moves forward, we are intent on evaluating whether the efficacy of VR-JIT translates into effectively enhancing employment outcomes within real-world settings providing vocational rehabilitation services. For example, we designed a protocol to evaluate VR-JIT within standardized, community-based individual placement and support services supporting adults with serious mental illness . Given the low levels of employment among returning citizens and lack of evidence-based vocational rehabilitation services within prison settings [8,11], the current study will investigate VR-JIT as an enhancement to existing vocational services implemented in two prisons in the State of Michigan called the Vocational Villages. The Vocational Villages provide an immersive educational community using virtual reality, robotics, and other technologies to support returning citizens becoming employable tradespeople .
Consistent with the Smart Decarceration Initiative , the proposed study will evaluate whether VR-JIT is effective at improving employment and reducing recidivism for returning citizens preparing to re-enter their communities. First, we will evaluate the impact of VR-JIT on individual-level outcomes (e.g., interviewing ability, employment and recidivism rate) and system-level outcomes (e.g., staff efficiency, cost-effectiveness). Second, we will evaluate the initial implementation of VR-JIT with regard to adoptability, acceptability, scalability, feasibility, and implementation costs. Lastly, we adapt an empirical framework on job acquisition via supported employment to explore potential mechanisms of employment (i.e., interviewing anxiety, motivation, and confidence) and employment as a mechanism for reducing recidivism .
July 1, 2020