Test 3 April, 2017

Prisons and probation: making a reality of rehabilitation (III)

The digital revolution has largely passed prisons by. Staff have poor access to technology. It is not really integrated or leveraged in any way to enhance efficiency or effectiveness. Prison officers still administer a complex, sometimes Kafkaesque, paper application system to administer and support a prisoner’s daily life. This system, invented in Victorian times, accounts for much of the working day for officers, taking them away from supervision and rehabilitation. Add to this reduced staffing numbers, it is unsurprising that the result has been increased tensions between prisoners and prison officers struggling to meet these day to day requirements.

The lack of modernisation helps to reinforce the institutionalisation of offenders, who themselves have even less access to technology than officers, leaving prisons with little or no digital literacy in a world that demands these skills to cope with daily life. Education is largely paper-based and for teachers chalk and talk.

So what can the provision of technology and greater use of digital tools do, to help staff reform prisons and assist prisoners to rehabilitate?  We are already looking into this question through our proof of concept sites HMP Wayland and the newly opened HMP Berwyn. Both have been digitised. The benefits although self-evident, are subject to rigorous research led by the University of York.

One of the issues to resolve is prisoners’ lack of access to landing-based telephones which increases tensions and alienation from society. Research shows that maintaining relationships with the outside world is pivotal to order, control and rehabilitation. A planned reduction in telephony rates (prisoners pay for their own calls) and increased telephony using the new infrastructure could be a first step. At a later stage, these networks could be used to detect and block mobile phones which will help reduce trafficking and drive up levels of prison intelligence.

Another issue is ensuring that technology is used to make prisoners responsible for their daily lives and free officers up from the amount of paperwork they must administer. Also, many prisoners’ level of education leave them in a position that fosters recidivism. The demand for education in prisons out strips several fold the resources available to Governors. Using technology can dramatically increase the volume and quality of adult learning in prisons. Non-structured learning tools can be provided to prisoners to be supported and guided by officers for those waiting entry to formal educational programmes.

Access can be given to our partners so they in turn can reach prisoners, digitally increasing the effectiveness of their work and helping prisoners be more responsible. The increase in digital literacy will prepare prisoners upon release to be law abiding citizens in our digital economy and society.  Technology can allow us to join-up our systems with other criminal justice partners more easily and cheaply, helping to provide seamless through-the-gate digital services to better protect the public.

If prison is to be a place of reform, greater access and use of technology is essential to greater security, order, control and rehabilitation.