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Virtual reality headed to knox county jail to help inmates practice job-search skills

The program will soon, also be in Knox County Jail to help current inmates practice job-search skills, that they can use upon release.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Virtual reality is all the hype. From gaming to education, it breaks the mold of traditional entertainment. 

But now, a new virtual reality program could help break the cycle of inmates being re-arrested.

The initiative is called "Project Overcome," and it's part of Goodwill's international objective to assist people in finding employment. They want to help people who are incarcerated by teaching them to speak comfortably about their incarceration during their job-hunting process, while also learning to use modern technologies in a low-risk environment. 

The experience is designed specifically for people impacted by the criminal justice system who want to enter the workforce.

Trish Richards is in the midst of her job hunt. She was was recently released-- and tried out the virtual reality program at the 'One Stop Re-Entry Shop' on Jan 20.

"I would by lying to you if I said it won't be tough out there in the real world," said the virtual assistant on the VR headset. 

Trish was asked a series of job-interview questions, and practiced giving answers. At the end of the process, the program reviewed her answers and provided feedback for how to improve.

Ayoka Huff-Johnson is a program coordinator with Goodwill. She said one of the best parts of the program is that it's judgement free.

"It is a non-threatening way to answer some of those tough questions about their background, experience, etc.. Then, it gives immediate feedback so people can see, did they select the best answer? And why or why not it was the best answer," Johnson said.

People can walk through the virtual reality once- or multiple times. There are several different characters, story-lines, and interview questions to practice answering.

"It offers up as much help or as little help as people need as they're going through this difficult process," Johnson said.

The VR headsets are being used at the monthly One-Stop Re-Entry Shops; however, soon they may also be entering the Knox County Jail.

"In part of our ongoing work with the Knox County Jail, we took this VR set out and demonstrated it to their staff," Johnson said. "We are currently working out the logistics of how we can bring it in, so people can get this help and assistance before they leave the facility and be ready to hit the ground running with their job search."

The VR program is very new to Goodwill Knoxville. They received the grant money from Goodwill International in December.

Additionally, Goodwill just recently got the OK to go back inside the jail, due to COVID-19 safety precautions. They foster job-readiness through training sessions and seminars inside the jail. The team hope the VR sets will soon be a part of that.

"This is a great thing for Knoxville. And I hope it's something that will be replicated in other communities," Johnson said.