YouTube Uses VR and AR to Spotlight Youth Incarceration

Project Witness aims to show need for prison reform

a child sitting in a dark hallway
Black Dot Films VR produced the short, which depicts children who have been incarcerated. Black Dot Films VR
Headshot of Ian Zelaya

Key insights:

YouTube is using virtual and augmented reality to advocate for prison reform.

The Google-owned video-sharing platform partnered with Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY)—a nonprofit that works to end extreme sentencing for youth in America—to launch Project Witness, which uses technology to show the realities of child incarceration.

YouTube’s immersive experiences team worked with CFSY to conceptualize a virtual reality film, which spotlights the lived stories of six people who served sentences as minors. The seven-minute film, produced by Black Dot Films VR, uses 360-degree VR technology to place viewers inside a prison environment, with settings including a transport vehicle and solitary confinement cell. The film is available for the public to watch on CFSY’s YouTube page; the brand recommends using a VR headset, but it can also be viewed on desktop and mobile.

The seven-minute film can be viewed with or without a VR headset.

According to Malika Saada Saar, senior counsel for civil and human rights at YouTube parent company Google, the project is an extension of Google’s previous commitments to criminal justice reform, which have included banning bail bond services from advertising on the platform and a company-wide “ban the box” policy, which removes the check box from hiring applications asking whether job seekers have a criminal record.

“We asked ourselves: How can we use our product, technologies and platforms to allow people to better understand communities impacted by mass incarceration? One community rarely heard from is children behind bars,” Saar said of the inspiration for the partnership and project. “We worked with CFSY to help them think about how they could use us as a portal for powerful storytelling around what it means to be a child incarcerated.”

The youth depicted in the film are portrayed by actors, with narration from interviews of formerly incarcerated advocates spotlighted in the project. The activists include Jarrett Harper, whose sentence was commuted after 20 years in prison with the intervention of lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson and musician John Legend; Alyssa Beck, who was trafficked as a minor and now advocates for juvenile justice reform; Xavier McElrath-Bey, who at 13 was charged as an adult for a gang-related murder and now advocates for abolishing “life without parole” for children in several states; and Hernan Carvente Martinez, who was incarcerated as a teen and has been awarded the Spirit of Youth Award by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

YouTube debuted Project Witness with a kickoff event in New York.

Sarah Steele, content partnership lead and executive producer for YouTube’s immersive experiences team, said the purpose of the VR film goes beyond fostering empathy in viewers—the goal is for viewers to reflect on when they were the same age as those whose stories are told in the film.

“We wanted to put people back in that stage of their life, and then push them to understand that it’s not normal to put children behind bars,” Steele said. “We want viewers to then take the next step and look further into the organization for how they can stop this. We put these tools out there to enable CFSY to drive their mission forward.”

According to Steele, the project took close to nine months to create from concept to execution. Filming took place over a few days at a formerly functional prison in Southern California.

“We felt like we were able to create a composite character with different genders, backgrounds and races, so pretty much anyone could put themselves in the shoes of [these children],” Steele added. “If you watch it with a headset, you can see the camera placements are intentionally low, to give you a sense that you’re a smaller person. We felt like only VR could put you in that place, more so than a traditional film.”

The kickoff included a Google Lens AR station, which animated anecdotes from featured activists like Jarrett Harper.
YouTube Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.