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

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 launched the project with an event in New York’s Chelsea Market on Feb. 13, where invited guests could view the film with VR headsets and use the Google Lens app to activate AR anecdotes of those featured in the film. The event also included a panel with the people featured in the film. YouTube and Google also promoted the project with a blog post penned by Legend and Stevenson.

Saar and Steele said the brand plans to take projects to different events throughout the year, including Google’s planned activation at SXSW and TED2020. To expose more people to the project, Google also plans to host multiple pop-up events at their New York and Los Angeles offices, and are considering future partnerships with artists and influencers involved with criminal justice reform. CFSY is also presenting the film on its own—this week, the nonprofit showed it to The Washington Post’s editorial board and at the Obama Foundation, and will present it at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

In the future, according to Saar, YouTube plans to continue leveraging technology to raise awareness for other social justice causes the brand supports, such as gender equity. In 2019, YouTube launched Courage to Question, a VR video series focused on women’s rights activists. Saar said the brand is thinking of ways to extend a VR project for that issue at the upcoming Generation Equality Forum, an international convening of women’s rights leaders in Mexico City and Paris this year.

“Using tools like VR is exciting because it allows us, through technology, to be able to document and bear witness. It takes it a step further by allowing that experience to be in the first person,” Saar said. “From that perspective, it’s exciting for us to think of opportunities to use VR as a human rights tool.”

YouTube isn’t the only brand to raise awareness for criminal justice reform. For Mother’s Day in 2019, Ben & Jerry’s and Lush worked with National Bail Out—a black-led collective of abolitionist organizers and activists—to launch social campaigns aimed to bail black mothers out of prison.

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