This paper was written by Sinmran Kaur from Goldsmiths University, and Jody Audley from Catch22.
- Security and safety: how does technology provide security in prisons and make those on the estate feel safer?
- Fairness: Is the use of technology fair in prisons?
- Inclusivity: how could technology be implemented in prisons in an inclusive format for prisoners as well as prison staff?
- Productivity: how could technology help increase productivity in prisons?
- Modernity: how is Catch22 responding to the lack of technology implementation and literacy in prisons?
Different technologies are used in prisons for various reasons. The main purpose of these technologies is to create a safe and secure environment for prison staff and wider society, and to promote inclusiveness and productivity for those incarcerated (Jewkes & Reisdorf, 2016). Utilising technology to monitor prisoners’ behaviours and identify individuals who may need additional support is essential for the safety of inmates as well as protecting prison staff and visitors. Technology can also be used to enable prisoners to connect with the outside world, gain independence whilst incarcerated, and familiarize themselves with modern day technology to support with their transition back into society. These groups are affected in different ways and require different benefits that best protect their interests. However, as the benefits of technology differ for prisoners and prison staff, as do the challenges.
This review sets out to explore the effectiveness of technology in supporting staff and prisoners with their appropriate needs, tapping into security, safety, fairness, inclusivity, and productivity. We will explore how technology advocates for these areas and reflect on how they may hinder them, with consideration of this for both prisoners and prison staff: what may make technology beneficial for one group, may be technology’s downfall for the other.
Security and safety
How does technology provide security in prisons, and make those on the estate feel safer?
As we have mentioned above, there are many technologies and systems that have been tried and used in prisons. However, we must ask how we can create a safe environment in prisons and how technology would help to enable this. A safe environment is a secure place which is stimulating, supportive and inclusive. (Cristina, 2023). Technology has proven to be vital in maintaining the safety of prisons. We can employ examples such as enhanced gates and permitter security, scanners, staff and inmate monitors as well as automated procedures (Longley, 2022). These ensure only the correct people can enter the prison, reduce contraband being brought onto the estate, and prevent absconding.
Currently technology such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, video analytics, personal radios, body-worn cameras, man-down sensors, mapping and access control data (Longley, 2022) are being used to maintain security in prisons. Most of these technologies allow prisons to identify the location of staff at all times (Sun, 2022), whilst technology like access control data regulates data usage. Technology such as airport security cameras have been tested in Graterford prison to provide further security and equal treatment of imprisoned persons (Bulman 2009). This is an imaging system known as SafeView. It can look past the clothing of people and detect any concealed objects; ‘The system beams radio energy in the millimeter wave spectrum from antennas that rotate around the person. The energy is reflected, and scanners produce an image of the body and any objects hidden beneath the clothing,’ (ibid.). the exposure to these radio waves produces less radiation than mobile phone transmission, so is also safe to use on a daily basis.
However, one may argue that this type of imaging detection is intrusive and infringes on the privacy of prisoners and visitors alike. The scans produce an image similar to nude photographs. To reduce harm caused from this, most services delete images immediately to prevent any breach of privacy, and members of the public agree to the use of such technology. Graterford officials set up laptop computers when they introduced the system to allow visitors to see for themselves how the images looked (Bulman, 2009). However, throughout the journal article, there was no mention of how prisoners felt about the use of this technology. This ultimately signifies the lack of inclusion of prisoners and their opinions on the integration of this technology. While there is legislation that protects prisoners, for instance Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which outlines that convicts must be ‘treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person’ (Easton, 2013) and the penal system must focus on ‘reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners.’ This, however, is not always applied in practice. This is largely due to limited government resources, as well as the lack of understanding of human rights issues, which compromises rights for prisoners. This evidences that the technological resources provided are often for the betterment of the prison institution and staff rather than inmates.
There is also a continuous issue of ‘understaffing, the low staff morale, and the high attrition rate of senior staff’ within prison institutions (BBC, 2023). This can affect the staff’s ability to work effectively and could act as a hindrance in supporting the prisoners, through causing staff to burn out from doing the job of several people and working too many hours. Technology could support with this by enabling certain tasks to be carried out without the presence of staff, for example the security scans. This would free staff up to be more present for the prisoners. However, as mentioned, this technology needs to be implemented with prisoners’ safety at the forefront so that “reformation and rehabilitation” is enabled and encouraged within the prison. In other words, technology provides security in prisons for staff but needs to be used fairly to advocate for the prisoners.
Is the use of technology fair in prisons?
Providing fair usage of technology for inmates is essential in establishing a successful rehabilitation process. It allows prisoners to learn skills without restriction as well as explore their interests. Yet, there are several shortcomings with the fairness of technologies as it is presently utilised in prisons. The rigid attitudes are evident through the main purpose of technology in prisons: to better facilitate prison staff and security enforcements with minimal improvement to the way in which technology has been used to benefit those incarcerated. In 2022 the shortage with correction staff led to a surge in the use of digitalized records and surveillance, and inmate tracking was implemented to prevent understaffing from leading to reduced care and safety (Jewkes & Reisdorf, 2016). Whilst one may argue that the security measures are essential to prisoners by keeping them safe and preventing violence amongst themselves, prisoners are one of the most isolated and impoverished groups in the digital age (Jewkes & Reisdorf, 2016), so this increase in technology utilization that prisoners do not understand and are not able to use, will only increase their feelings of ostracism.
The privatizations and increase in a neo-liberal society have had detrimental impacts in the prison setting by prioritizing costs and profits over prisoners’ wellbeing and needs (Jewkes & Reisdorf, 2016). This compromises security and fair treatment for both staff and prisoners (Prison Reform Trust 2005). Technologies are being implemented into prisons to reduce labour costs, but this does not help the prisoners. The lack of staff presence on wings renders prisoners feeling less able to obtain support from the prison staff, and makes the wings more unsafe as there are fewer members of staff to de-escalate or prevent high risk situations. This creates a paradoxical dilemma within these prisons and correctional institutions, whereby the managers and owners are willing to incorporate ‘new communication technologies as a means of reducing operational costs’ but are hesitant to incorporate it to enable prisoners to associate with society outside of prison.
Concurrently, individuals are also wary about how the prisoners’ access to new technologies might be regarded as a privilege as well as “(incurring) the wrath of the popular press” (Jewkes & Reisdorf, 2016). Despite the intention of protecting prisoners from the press as their lack of technology knowledge may cause them to be accessed by someone, it seems that this has detrimental impacts on prisoners (Mcrae 2023). According to recent government statistics, one-fourth of inmates released from repeat offences return to custody (ibid.). This is in part due to the lack of education and knowledge in the digitalized world, making them feel ostracized from and overwhelmed by modern day society. For example, they may struggle with the technological aspects of finding and conducting work, or adjust to electronic services such as online banking, GP appointments etc. Whilst organisations exist to teach prison leavers technological skills, if they are taught some basic skills pre-release they may feel less surprised by the dependence on technology in today’s society and better able to adjust to this once they are released.
Conclusively, the system is not fair towards prisoners, and can negatively impact how prison leavers navigate life outside of prison. Thus, there is a need to change these attitudes and to have prisoners’ perspective in mind, so that they are included in the decisions made about their time in custody as well as their transition back into the community.
How could technology be implemented in prisons in an inclusive format for prisoners as well as prison staff?
We must put prisoners at the forefront of technology implementation when considering how to create a stimulating and inclusive environment across the estate. Thus, in recent years, the usage of tablets and Prisoner Self-service kiosks has increased (Mufarreh, Waitkus & Booker, 2022). Self-service kiosks are computers allowing prisoners to “function independently from correction officers and have more control” (McDougall et al., 2017) over how they spend their time as well as familiarising themselves with technology used outside of prisons to better their opportunity to rehabilitate. This attitude is beneficial to prisoners as it has led to a decrease in infractions (McDougall et al., 2017) as well as “(improving) staff-inmate relationships, through reducing the administrative burden on staff and de-escalating frustrations for inmates.” (Barkworth, Thaler & Howard, 2023).
The entrenched Victorian ideology on prisons has seen a shift in recent years. Yet, these shifts are minimal, and some of society retains archaic views on prison life and the criminal justice system. People view the institute of prison as a method of deterrence and punishment. However, it is no longer an apparatus for punishment or dehumanising prisoners. Prisons have been remodeled, though to a limited extent, it is evidence of society’s new focus on reform and rehabilitation. Nonetheless, for many years, new technologies adopted by prison authorities solely focused on improving the security and management of inmates. This proved to be extremely limiting and at times completely restricting ‘direct access to the internet and digital devices.’ This is evidence of the ‘prison authorities’ needs and preferences to prioritise security and punishment over (the) benefits for inmates.’ (Mufarreh, Waitkus & Booker, 2022) Also, this limitation to inmates may reinforce an existing inequality within society (Barkworth, Thaler & Howard, 2023) by preventing the opportunity to move forward and to rehabilitate and adjust to the technological world outside prisons. Technology is being implemented more and more into prisons, but prisoners are not being shown how to use this technology in a way that is beneficial to them (Kerr & Willis, 2018).
How could technology help increase productivity in prisons?
As discussed, many people are accepting of the idea of prison staff and correction officials using technology to improve prison security and unburden themselves of responsibilities. The same cannot be said about imprisoned persons, fearing that access to technology in prisons is a luxury (Taugerbeck et al., 2019). The loneliness and anxiety of being separated from family and friends has a significant toll on prisoners, causing issues for their mental and physical health. Consequently, these issues remain when prisoners re-enter society and suffer from various issues such as alcohol and substance use or unemployment. By using technology, correction staff can engage prisoners in activities, courses and learning; providing them with essential skills and opportunity which will aid job searches, digital navigation and communication outside prison. The idea of rehabilitation and developing a sense of purpose is integral and something advocated by Catch22. Having said this, newer prisons are encouraging the use of technology to promote a productive environment.
HMP Fosse Way is a private prison that opened in Leicester in June 2023. It follows a similar format to HMP Five Wells which opened in 2022, in which modern innovations are used with rehabilitation at the forefront. (Serco, 2023):
- In-cell devices which prisoners can use for educative purposes, so prisoners can access learning in their cells at their will.
- Qualifications awarded in computer-aided design education. Prisoners with this qualification are then eligible for release on temporary license to work on construction sites.
- LED lighting workshops
- Music classrooms, where prisoners can record music and train in music qualifications
- A driving simulator prisoners can access to practice driving construction vehicles (forklifts, lorries etc) to prepare them for obtaining an HGV permit upon release.
As shown here, HMP Fosse Way and HMP Five Wells are implementing technology in a way that has not been seen before. The prisons have been built from the ground with the capacity to implement technology to benefit prisoners whilst still protecting staff and the public. Whilst these prisons have not been open long enough to yield results on their effectiveness, HMP Five Well’s first annual report highlighted that more than 20 workshops were running by the end of 2022 (Independent Monitoring Boards, 2023). However, the difficulties of opening a new prison were still evident, and limitations in the service included staff recruitment issues and subsequent insufficient work opportunities despite the workshops that did come into fruition.
On the other hand, older prisons do not have the means to mobilise technology in such a way that promotes productivity amongst inmates. Palmer, Hatcher & Tonkin (2020) evaluated digital technology across 11 prisons in the UK. Results found that older prisons had to use wired phones, as they do not even possess signal or Wi-Fi that is accessible to the wings. Many cells in older prisons were not fit for the installation of telephones or PSS kiosks due to a lack of sockets meaning prisoners could not sit on their bed and make calls at the same time without risking breaking the wire. In addition, when the prisons experienced technology outages, there was no operation of systems to manage this. There were no procedures for continuing the services whilst the services were down, such as canteen requests or communications between prisoners and staff, initiating chaotic working and living environments until the technology is fixed. Prisoners and staff in interviews also shared their hesitations with introducing new technology: staff feared the prisoners would use the technology for criminal activity, whilst prisoners were worried about having to use technology they were unfamiliar with and were not confident in their ability to learn how to use it.
Conclusively, technology is beginning to be immediately included in the development of new prisons, and work is being done to incorporate technology into older prisons. However, the research shows that older prisons are not structured to use technology, and newer prisons are still too new to also learn the skills required to effectively use this technology across the estate. Consequently, should prisons seek external subject matter experts to help with the implementation and training of technology mobilisation?
How is Catch22 responding to the lack of technology implementation and literacy in prisons?
In 2021, Catch22 merged with Code4000: an organisation that trains prisoners in coding. This strategic move was conducted to address the importance of setting individuals up with sustainable and aspirational career opportunities as well as fill the skills gap in software development the country is currently facing. Code4000 has been highly successful: none of the Code4000 graduates have returned to prison. Their intention was to provide prisoners with skills that put them in a position to obtain skilled work once they are released, enabling them to embark down a path that they would not have envisioned for themselves otherwise.
“Our curriculum guides a novice programmer through their very first steps in coding to becoming a full-stack (fully trained) software developer. We support students through a transformative journey that not only builds their coding skills but has a markable effect on confidence, self-esteem, and wellbeing.”
This demonstrates how Catch22 not only advocates for utilising technology in prisons for productivity and inclusiveness, but is actively investing in equipping prisoners with the skills to engage in technology productively. It also highlights Catch22’s passion to set prisoners up with desired skills in many employment pathways which enables prisons leavers to feel more aspirational about their future post-incarceration.
To conclude, technology is used frequently to make prisons safe and secure. However, its use in encouraging fairness, inclusivity and productivity is lacking, especially for the benefit of those incarcerated. There is a wealth of research indicating that technology can offer a secure way for prisoners to be productive and included in society by interacting with family through video calls or educating themselves with tech courses. Yet, technology should not replace the human interactions prisoners receive whilst on the estate. Rather than replacing prison staff, technology should be used to support staff with their tasks so that they can be more present on the wings and spend more time with the prisoners so they can obtain support more easily and feel less isolated. This demonstrates the slow but changing attitude towards rehabilitating prisoners rather than punishing them. This idea is accentuated by the development of modern prisons HMP Five Wells and HMP Fosse Way, which have implemented technology for restorative purposes, rather than just for safety and security. It is evident that through reform and change in social attitude, rehabilitation is now a central part of the prison environment. Catch22 works to encourage this process by providing support and resources to enable prisoners to develop coding skills which are highly desired by many employers, equipping them with more chance of restoration when they leave prison. Technology has helped effectuate this change, and its impacts are significant on the mental and emotional wellbeing of prisoners. It helps remove the barriers of isolation and encourages a conceivable reintegration into modern society.Continue reading