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  • 04.20.17

“Step To The Line”: How Prison Is Helping Oculus Expand VR’s Horizons

Oculus and entrepreneurship program Defy Ventures are using motivational exercises and groundbreaking VR films to change lives on both sides of the prison wall.

I’m standing in the gym in B Yard at Pelican Bay State Prison, just outside Crescent City, the small, isolated, coastal town close to the Oregon border, where California sends the worst of the worst of its criminals. Traditionally, violence here has been off the charts and inmates frequently battle each other in racial gang fights.

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But today, 37 Pelican Bay inmates–men of all races, many serving long terms for murder–are together in the gym, working side by side, laughing and even bear-hugging, and sometimes crying. Clark Ducart, the prison’s warden since 2014, is very impressed.

“Five years ago, you would have struggled to get the different races together,” Ducart told me, adding that B Yard had been on a full lockdown for two full years because of racial gang violence just half a decade ago. “Today, they’re hugging each other and putting happy-face stickers on people. I can’t believe it.”

So what’s changed for these inmates, and made it so myself and a few dozen volunteers have not only come to Pelican Bay but are mingling easily in the gym here with these hard-core offenders and feeling safe being surrounded by them?

The shortest possible answer: hope.

Pelican Bay State Prison [Photo: courtesy of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation]
Hope can come in many forms, but here–as in more than 20 prisons around the United States–it’s thanks to Defy Ventures, a rigorous, six-month nonprofit entrepreneurship program for inmates that aims to help them find employment or even start their own businesses when they get out.

Defy is centered around the idea of helping current and former inmates, both men and women, learn entrepreneurship and job skills through intensive training, resume preparation, mentoring by experienced and successful businesspeople, financial assistance, competition, and, perhaps most importantly, nonstop support and encouragement, both on the inside and, later, on the outside.

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By engaging top corporate executives, investors, and entrepreneurs nationally,” Defy writes on its website, the nonprofit “catalyzes broad- scale personal and economic opportunities for people with criminal histories, and shatters perceptions of one of the most stigmatized and overlooked populations in America.”

There are plenty of prison programs aimed at helping inmates better themselves. They can learn through theater, and California’s famous San Quentin prison even has a novel tech incubator program. But Defy seems to be achieving success that professionals like Ducart, a 31-year veteran of the correctional industry, hasn’t seen before. He was supposed to retire recently, but decided to stick around, in part because of the promise for change he saw in Defy. “Right now in my career,” he said, “this is my opportunity to make the biggest difference.”

That same promise is what led Facebook-owned Oculus to fund a new virtual reality film by Brazilian Ricardo Laganaro, Step to the Line, that profiles Defy as part of its first VR for Good program.

[Photo: Nancy Rothstein Photography, courtesy of Facebook]
VR for Good is Oculus’s social good initiative. Conceived of and launched last year by Paula Cuneo, Oculus’s head of experience and partner marketing, the program selected and funded 10 films that utilized VR as an “empathy tool,” Cuneo said, and that “give people an opportunity to step into other people’s” lives.

More than 100 teams applied, each seeking the $40,000 in funding, a Nokia Ozo rig to film with, and access to experienced VR filmmaking mentoring that Oculus was offering those selected for the program.

The first nine films, covering topics like human trafficking, ocean conservation, domestic violence, and other topics, debuted at Sundance in January. But while moviegoers there were treated to a short Step to the Line trailer, the full film was held back because the organizers of the Tribeca Film Festival had hand-selected it to make its world premiere in New York City today.

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Step to the Line is a piece that immediately moved me,” said Loren Hammonds, Tribeca Film Festival’s programmer for film and experiential. “There are several moments of transcendence in it, from the intimate conversation between a prisoner and a program volunteer, to the jubilant final sequence. The stereoscopic imagery is beautifully transportive, and the subject is compelling, but mostly the experience has heart that just can’t be denied.”

Catherine Hoke and inmates [Photo: Daniel Terdiman]
Step to the Line is named for an exercise that Defy founder and CEO Catherine Hoke, a former California state wrestling champion and venture capitalist, has run countless times at the many prisons with which she works.

During the exercise, which she admits she stole from the film Freedom Writers, Hoke has the inmates–who Defy employees and volunteers steadfastly refer to as “entrepreneurs in training,” or EITs, and not prisoners or criminals–stand a few feet back from a long line taped to the floor of the gym, while a prison guard with a rifle watches everything from a rafter above. Defy’s volunteers, who stand back from a second line, face the EITs.

The idea is this: Hoke reads from a list of statements, and if they ring true to any of the EITs or volunteers, they step forward, to the line. She’ll eventually read several dozen of the statements, and the group that steps to the line each time is different.

Here at Pelican Bay, it’s Hoke’s 40th birthday, so she’s in a celebratory mood as she begins. Wearing a train conductor’s hat that helpfully reads “Conductor,” as well as a thin-black-striped skirt and shirt, tall red leather boots, and a silver-yellow braided tie emblazoned with “Defy,” Hoke begins with simple statements designed to loosen folks up: “I was the class clown.” “I am madly in love.” “I am madly in love with burritos.”

Then she moves on to the harder stuff.

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“I’ve had my heart broken.” Everyone in the room steps to the line except one EIT.

“I dropped out of high school.” Almost every EIT steps forward, but just one of the volunteers.

“I’ve been in a fight to prove myself.” All but three of the EITs move forward.

And then it’s time for the really deep stuff.

[Photo: Daniel Terdiman]
“I grew up in poverty.” “My mom or dad has been to prison.” “At least one of my parents abused drugs or alcohol.” “I was born to a teenage mother.” “I became a teenage parent myself.”

Watching Hoke and the EITs, you begin to understand the life stories of the people in the room, just by how many stepped to the line, or who did so again and again.

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“My parents tucked me into bed and told me I was loved.” Few of the EITs stepped forward. “Violence took place in my home growing up.” “Violence took place against me growing up.” Many more stepped to the line.

“When I was 18 I thought I wouldn’t make it to 21.” Almost all the EITs stepped forward.

To hear Hoke tell it, much of what Defy does is about helping EITs learn not just entrepreneurship but about how to forgive themselves, as well as the people in their lives who hurt them. Clearly, many people may care little about whether prison inmates forgive themselves, but to Hoke that’s a key element behind an EIT both staying out of trouble on the outside and being a productive member of society after being released from incarceration.

“Not forgiving others is hurting me,” Hoke reads from her list, adding that at this Defy cohort’s graduation “in June [when she reads this statement again] I want you off this line. But it’s your choice.”

Then she flips that notion on its head with the next statement: “Since joining Defy, I feel less ashamed of myself.” Many of the EITs step forward.

“I’m on a journey of self-transformation.” All the EITs step forward, and Hoke jokes, “I was going to say, if all the EITs weren’t at the line, I was going to kick their butts.”

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[Photo: Daniel Terdiman]
When you think about the people involved in this exercise, it’s stunning to see how they’re behaving. They’re showing weakness. Some are crying. There’s a lot of hugging among the EITs. In short, they are feeling supported–by each other, regardless of race or former gang affiliation, and by those in Defy. Even by the prison administration itself.

In the film, viewers are brought directly into the prison experience, in 360 degrees.

“In Brazil, we have a huge crisis in the penitentiary system,” Laganaro said, “and we’ve all seen lots of films [about prisons] in the U.S. The cool thing about the project and what [Defy is] doing, is [to] give a voice to the inmates. To talk to them and really understand their stories, and give them a chance to have a life. I was really curious about what they were doing, and I was really waiting to go inside and see with my own eyes, and try to put that in the film.”

Added Laganaro, “I think everybody wants to know how it is to be inside a prison, but nobody wants to be there, really. So the main thing about VR and this project is we could really put people there and let the actions speak for themselves.”

The movie brings viewers into a cell, providing a visceral sense of just how confining a 9-foot-by-11-foot prison cell can be. But it also brings you directly into the middle of the Step to the Line exercise.

And that’s exactly the kind of thing that a VR film can do that a traditional film can’t, Cuneo argues.

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“One of the things that’s compelling with VR in terms of shooting cinematic experiences,” she says, “is that because it’s cinematic, you can showcase scale, size, and scope effectively. A VR camera can get in a space and convey a feeling of claustrophobia. . . . When shooting with traditional film, it’s hard to get a sense of that scale, the confinement of that small space.”

[Photo: Daniel Terdiman]
It would be possible to show how close the walls of a cell are, she added, by using special camera techniques, but it would probably require constructing a cell. “It would have to be fake,” she said.

And when it comes to the Step to the Line exercise, VR is the perfect medium for bringing the viewer right into the middle of a group of people answering the questions that reveal their biggest secrets. “You’re not watching,” Cuneo says. “You’re participating.”

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, agrees. “Soon, more people will have the opportunity to witness [Hoke’s] program and hear the stories of her EITs through Step to the Line,” Sandberg wrote in a blog post introducing the film. “Virtual reality has the power to build empathy by putting us closer to walking in another’s shoes. Step to the Line helps us see life from behind bars–and how hard it can be to rebuild after past mistakes.”

Being able to get closer to state prisoners’ lives, Oculus believes, will instill a greater sense of understanding about the harsh circumstances that they face every day. Even if you have trouble mustering any kind of compassion for a group of hardened men who have been convicted of heinous crimes, it’s unlikely you can come away from watching Step to the Line without feeling powerful emotions.

The same is abundantly true if you happen to be in the room with Defy as Hoke, her staff, and the volunteers work alongside the EITs.

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As I approached the B Yard gym, I heard a loud cheering inside. Not knowing what it was, I was unprepared for the “Tunnel of Love” that greeted me as I walked through the gym’s door: Two lines of EITs welcoming the Defy people and cheering their arrival loudly and boisterously.

There’s a real reason the EITs are full of so much enthusiasm: They know the Defy program may offer their best-ever hope to have an actual future on the outside.

[Photo: Daniel Terdiman]
According to Dave Long, Defy’s vice president of prison engagement and himself a former warden at California City Correctional Facility, Defy has led to profound changes at the prisons where it’s set up shop. He recalled the warden from the state prison in Lancaster, California, telling him that violence there was down 30% since Defy arrived. “People get hope,” Long said. “They want to go home. [So] they stay away from the gang violence.”

And it doesn’t take a lot of inmates participating in Defy to make a difference. “If you get 200 to 300 inmates to go through this,” Long said, “it tips the culture. . . . [Other inmates] see it. They see the hope in the [EITs’] eyes, so they want in on that.”

A lot of the inmates at Pelican Bay are in for life. And while recent state laws have made it more likely that prisoners sentenced to life will eventually be released, Defy nonetheless appeals to inmates who will never again be free.

Shortly after I entered the gym, a 38-year-old EIT named Adrian, locked up for the last 20 years and serving life, wandered over to introduce himself. He told me Defy was the best program Pelican Bay has ever offered, in large part because it promotes rehabilitation in a way most others haven’t. “Although I’m a life inmate,” Adrian said, Defy “offers a chance to rehabilitate yourself as a person.”

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I asked him why he’d wanted to be part of an entrepreneurship program when he’d never get a chance to run a business in the outside world. “My son is really interested in business,” he said. “He’s really proud of me because of this.”

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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