Tackling Reactive Aggression with VR: An Introduction to the VR4React Project

Every year, hundreds of confrontations in prison facilities in Europe are caused not only by primary aggression, but also in response to an adverse prison environment where threat, provocation, and other negative emotions are widespread among inmates. This is a significant obstacle in the deradicalisation and resocialisation of prisoners, decreasing the general well-being of prisoners and prison officers alike, while sometimes also having a direct effect on the length of prison stays.

Aggression as a response to threat, provocation, or negative emotions is known as reactive aggression. It’s important that prison management teams are aware of this issue and its causes, and take proactive steps to ensure that inmates are taught alternative ways to behave in the face of negativity, and that prison officers know how to mitigate aggression when it arises.

In this article, we explore the phenomenon of reactive aggression and discuss how it can be addressed with the use of virtual reality, especially in the context of the European Union’s VR4React project.

What is Reactive Aggression?

Reactive aggression has several academic definitions, but the common underlying theme is that it refers to any aggressive behaviour incited by threat, provocation, or negative emotions such as frustration.

Per the World Health Organization, aggression among prison populations is especially high. This may be due to sociological factors related to inmates themselves, but is certainly exacerbated by overcrowding and a lack of psychological support and/or treatment. Studies such as Baggio et al., 20201 have confirmed this relationship, as well as the impact of inmate turnover.

Reactive aggression has a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of both inmates and prison staff. Among inmates, it can cause further emotional and psychological damage — in turn, driving more aggression and creating a vicious circle — and bad behaviour may even lengthen prison stays. For staff, the need to intervene in response to aggression can also cause distress, leading to burnout and thus greater employee turnover.

In Polish prison systems, officers are trained to react to aggression with force appropriate to the circumstances, while causing the least possible harm to inmates. However, new prison staff and insufficient capacity at training centres means that there is a need for additional training, says expert Cezary Mecwaldowski from the Central Training Centre of the Prison Service in Poland.

Combined with a large staff change, the need for training has increased, and the existing training may be insufficient to equip officers with the necessary knowledge and competence. As the number of cases of aggression by inmates increases, programs to counteract violence and aggression are introduced.

Using VR to Tackle Reactive Aggression

Virtual reality (VR) is a novel technology that entails using specialised eyewear to simulate various experiences. It has many applications in psychotherapy and related studies, as effective simulations can evoke positive emotions. It can even be used to test patients’ responses to negative situations using role-play, without real-world stakes.

For these same reasons, VR appears promising in fighting reactive aggression. One approach is to help inmates find psychological relief or contentment through positive, joyful simulations; another is to experiment with and develop inmates’ behaviour in the face of negativity while remaining in a controlled environment.

As VR is a relatively new technology, its potential in fighting reactive aggression is yet to be fully explored. However, as a tool, it shows great promise, and experts are actively working to develop its applications in prison environments.

About the VR4React Project

VR4React is a collaborative project whereby participants aim to mitigate reactive aggression in prison inmates using virtual reality, while also equipping prison staff with the tools needed to diffuse misconduct and violence.

The initiative aims to combat aggressive reactions from several angles. Among others, end goals include the following:

  • Promoting rehabilitation and social reintegration for aggressive inmates.
  • Training prison officers to deal with reactive aggression.
  • Promoting inmate well-being by reducing victimisation.

Project milestones include the creation of a VR intervention programme which directly targets reactive aggression, as well as a secondary programme (consisting of both VR and traditional e-learning components) for prison officers. Participants hope the project will reach at least 80 inmates and prison staff, with more than 40 prison educators and/or psychologists educated in partner countries.

The project is coordinated by the University Rey Juan Carlos (URJC) of Spain and partnered by numerous European organisations including the Polish Platform for Homeland Security (PPHS). Other participating countries include Portugal, Macedonia, Greece, the Republic of Moldova, Romania, and Turkey. For some partner states — notably Poland, the Republic of Moldova, and Turkey — the need for this and similar projects is especially apparent, as prison population rates (per 100,000 residents) in these countries measure 50 to 250% higher than the European average.

VR4React will leverage virtual reality in several ways, with programmes targeted towards both prison officers and inmates. While experts are still exploring different approaches to designing these programmes, one early concept could involve officers and inmates “switching roles” through VR role-play. With this approach, both parties not only build a better understanding of the triggers of mechanisms involved in and resolutions for aggressive conflicts but also build greater empathy for each others’ situations.

Stay Up-to-Date with VR4React

VR4React is an ongoing, multi-year project. If you’re interested in tracking how participants develop the VR programmes as well as their success in prison environments, we encourage you to look out for updates on the VR4React website and Facebook page. You can also follow the Polish Platform for Homeland Security for updates on the project and other European Union initiatives.

  1. Baggio, Stéphanie et al. “Do Overcrowding and Turnover Cause Violence in Prison?.” Frontiers in Psychiatry vol. 10 1015

Thomas Bush

Content Specialist