Use of Virtual Reality in Catalan Prisons: Challenges and Opportunities

Technology Implementation Case



Context & Problem

The use of Virtual Reality (VR) technology is becoming increasingly widespread in psychological therapy and even in the field of forensic psychology. VR is a powerful tool that allows people to experience different environments and situations with ecological validity, resulting in the experience of presence with the illusion of being in a real place (place illusion) and the illusion that the scenario is actually occurring (plausibility illusion) (Slater, 2009).   

The use of VR in the field of intimate partner violence (IPV) has been studied with two main purposes: to reduce key risk factors for perpetration, such as the lack of empathic skills, and to understand the mechanisms underlying the successful use of VR in this field (Seinfeld et al., 2018, 2021). The definition of empathy is controversial, but Davis (1980) distinguishes between two components of empathy: an affective component related to the ability to experience others’ emotional states and a cognitive component pertaining to the ability to understand others’ mental processes.
Although empathy is a multidimensional construct, deficits in emotion recognition are most consistently found to be related to antisocial behaviour, violent offending, and IPV (Mariano et al., 2017; Seidel et al., 2013). Therefore, most programmes for perpetrators aim to improve empathic capacities as well as other risk or protective factors, such as reducing cognitive distortions and other criminogenic needs.  
The use of VR technology in these settings aims to make violent men aware of their active role in the use of violence by bringing them closer to the sensations and emotions that the victim may experience (Seinfeld et al., 2021).
By immersing them in a virtual environment that simulates the victim’s experience and taking the first-person perspective of the victim (Gonzalez-Liencres et al., 2020), violent men can learn how to identify the victim’s emotions and respond in a more empathetic manner. The use of VR in IPV therapy has the potential to reduce key risk factors for perpetration and, ultimately, reduce the risk of recidivism of violent behaviours.   

This article draws on our own experience researching the use of immersive VR in different prisons and rehabilitation centres in Catalonia (Spain) to highlight its potential for managing risk factors in IPV perpetrators and integrating it into traditional treatment programmes. We focus on practical considerations derived from our experience and the opportunities and challenges of introducing this powerful tool into prisons.  


Our work suggests that VR is a promising method for reducing specific risk factors for perpetration in offenders and improving emotional recognition as a precursor of empathy (Barnes, 2020; Johnston, 2021; Seinfeld et al., 2018), while also providing a cost-effective way to personalise treatment to participants’ needs through different scenarios. 

Overcoming Challenges in Implementing Immersive VR in Prison Settings

Cognitive skills

In our research involving immersive VR in prison settings for IPV offenders (Barnes et al., 2022), we have observed individual differences that must be considered when designing treatment programmes. One area of concern is cognitive skills, which we have evaluated through psychological and empathic tests. Some of our participants (i.e., offenders) have struggled to understand and complete these tests due to language and reading skills, abstraction skills, and concentration skills. To address this, we suggest using alternative assessment techniques such as behavioural, indirect, or implicit measures.

VR can facilitate behavioural assessments that provide a more realistic response from participants and can overcome cognitive skills deficits and social desirability problems. Previous studies in the field of violence and IPV have shown promise for this approach (Johnston, 2021; Rovira et al., 2009; Seinfeld et al., 2018; Slater et al., 2013). It is necessary to adapt assessments to the characteristics of the penitentiary population in both research and applied contexts.

Psychological adjustment

Additionally, it may be necessary to exclude certain offenders from participating in VR intervention sessions if they show signs of maladjustment or have high levels of stress. Being in prison can have negative social, psychological, and biological impacts, including high levels of stress and pre-existing mental disorders that may be exacerbated by the prison context.

Immersive VR has the potential to elicit strong emotional responses and promote psychotherapeutic change, but it is crucial to assess the optimal time for participants to be receptive to the intervention and to be attentive to their situational psychological state.

Rehabilitation clinicians should carefully assess the suitability of participants for group interventions and exclude those with pre-existing psychological disorders that may affect their perceptions of reality. The VR intervention should be integrated into a rehabilitation programme with follow-up to maximise its benefits. 

Individual profiles

The criminal profiles of perpetrators of intimate partner violence have been compared between prison and probation populations in terms of psychological constructs and the effectiveness of immersive Virtual Reality interventions. Lower emotion recognition is consistently found in violent offenders, with worse recognition in prison populations than in probation populations.
VR interventions may benefit prisoners with less severe criminal profiles more than those with more severe profiles. Future research should consider additional psychological and behavioural factors, such as personality traits, dispositional and attitudinal traits, and comorbidities.   

The possibility of personalising VR experiences for IPV perpetrators was explored, with the addition of fake interoceptive feedback representing fear, but no significant changes in outcomes were found. It was observed that the same virtual intervention does not work in the same way for all individuals, suggesting the need for further research to better understand individual responses to VR interventions based on criminal profiles.

Desirability in prison contexts

Another challenge in implementing VR as a rehabilitation tool for offenders of IPV could be the attitudinal and emotional factors, such as gender stereotypes and cognitive distortions. The way in which imprisoned perpetrators report their experience of VR sessions, and the rehabilitation process could be influenced by these factors, which may hinder the effectiveness of the treatment.
The prison context itself carries an extra layer of social and gender norms that could impact participants’ evaluations of the VR scenes and their descriptions of their immersive VR experience. This may lead to socially desirable responses, where perpetrators depict an image of themselves that is considered desirable in the prison environment. To assess perpetrators’ genuine experiences in VR, measures that are more implicit or indirect, such as behavioural and physiological responses, should be preferred.

In conclusion, virtual reality can be a valuable tool for supporting conventional methods in assessing and treating domestic abuse, being properly integrated into rehabilitation programmes.

However, it is important to note that VR technology alone cannot solve the problem of gender-based violence. It should be seen as a supplementary methodology that complements a comprehensive treatment programme, and requires prior sessions and interviews with professionals.  

Continued research is needed to fully understand the benefits and mechanisms of integrating VR into conventional treatment and its impact on each participant’s unique experience.


Barnes, N. (2020). El proyecto V-Respect.Me en el Programa de violencia de género en los centros penitenciarios. Centre d’Estudis Jurídics i Formació Especialitzada (CEJFE)

Barnes, N., Sanchez-Vives, M.V., Johnston, T. (2022). On the practical use of immersive virtual reality for rehabilitation of intimate partner violence perpetrators in prison. Frontiers in psychology,597. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.787483

Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Cat. Sel. Doc. Psychol. 10:85

Gonzalez-Liencres, C., Zapata, L., Iruretagoyena, G., Seinfeld. S., Pérez-Mendez, L., Arroyo-Palacios, J., Borland, D., Slater, M., Sanchez-Vives, M.V. (2020). Being the victim of intimate partner violence in virtual reality: first-versus third-person perspective. Frontiers in psychology. 11:820. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00820Johnston, T. (2021). Assessment, prevention and rehabilitation of intimate partner violence through immersion in virtual reality. Modifying Cognitions, Emotions and Behaviours through Embodied Perspective Taking. Doctoral dissertation. University of Barcelona, Spain.

Mariano, M., Pino, M. C., Peretti, S., Valenti, M., and Mazza, M. (2017). Understanding criminal behavior: empathic impairment in criminal offenders. Soc. Neurosci. 12, 379–385. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2016.1179670

Rovira, A., Swapp, D., Spanlang, B., and Slater, M. (2009). The use of virtual reality in the study of people’s responses to violent incidents. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 3:59. doi: 10.3389/neuro.08.059.2009

Seidel, E. M., Pfabigan, D. M., Keckeis, K., Wucherer, A. M., Jahn, T., Lamm, C., et al. (2013). Empathic competencies in violent offenders. Psychiatry Res. 210, 1168–1175. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2013.08.027

Seinfeld, S., Arroyo-Palacios, J., Iruretagoyena, G., Hortensius, R., Zapata, L., Borland, D., et al. (2018). Offenders become the victim in virtual reality: impact of changing perspective in domestic violence. Sci. Rep. 8:2692. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-19987-7

Seinfeld, S., Zhan, M., Poyo-Solanas, M., Barsuola, G., Vaessen, M., Slater, M., Sanchez-Vives, M.V., de Gelder, B. (2021). Being the victim of virtual abuse changes default mode network responses to emotional expressions. cortex. 135, 268–284. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2020.11.018

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Nicolas Barnes is a Forensic Psychologist in the Specialised Intervention Programmess Unit of the General Directorate of Prison Affairs, Department of Justice, Government of Catalonia (Spain). He is responsible for the implementation and supervision of rehabilitation programmes in different areas such as gender violence or violent radicalisation. He is currently pursuing a PhD focused on immersive Virtual Reality in gender violence prison rehabilitation programmes with the Institute of Biomedical Research August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS) and the University of Barcelona. He is a member of the research project VR per GENERE.

Dr Tania Johnston is a clinical psychologist and researcher. After working for 5 years in a mental health centre in France, she completed her PhD in 2021, focusing on the use of VR for the assessment, prevention, and rehabilitation of intimate partner violence. She subsequently completed a post-doctoral fellowship on the same topic in the European project  VR per GENERE. Currently, she works as a clinical psychologist at a health tech company using technology to make mental health accessible to everyone.

Dr Ana Gallego is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Psychology, University of Jyväskylä, Finland, where she has been an integral staff member since 2017. In 2018, she received a Junior Investigator Poster Award from the Association for Contextual Behavioural Science. Her research focuses on the potential of virtual reality as a tool to enhance psychological interventions, with a particular interest in addressing gender-based violence. She is affiliated with the Faculty of Education and Psychology, University of Jyväskylä (Finland) and JYU.Well, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Jyväskylä (Finland). She is a member of the research project VR per GENERE.

Dr Mavi Sanchez-Vives is an ICREA Research Professor at the Institute for Biomedical Research August Pi i Sunyer in Barcelona, where she leads the Systems Neuroscience group. With a medical degree and a doctorate in neuroscience, she is a researcher and a member of the scientific council of the Human Brain Project. She has been a pioneer in the use of virtual reality in the field of virtual embodiment, investigating applications in psychology and medicine. One of these applications has been on the rehabilitation of violent behaviour, in particular in intimate partner violence in the research project VR per GENERE.

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