Revisiting the Digital Prison in Light of Social Distancing

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Dr Victoria Knight on how digital tools can alleviate the harmful effects of social isolation and deprivation in prison.

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The digital prison

This is a guest post by Dr Victoria Knight Senior Research Fellow at De Montfort University.

Social distancing when incarcerated

The current global pandemic presents new challenges and serious risks for our prisons. Our collective compliance with social distancing measures has turned many of us towards an increased reliance on technology to undertake many routine tasks and explore new ways to connect to our families, friends, work, leisure and education. Whilst this has been enlightening it has also shone a light on those unable to participate with the digital world to connect to our communities. News feeds are littered with examples of communities deploying technology to assist in the fight against COVID-19 and ensuring people are cared for, protected and informed. However many, including those people in prison, remain more disconnected from civic society than ever before- heightening social, health and economic inequalities.

Whilst I don’t want to undermine the pains of imprisonment or the hardship of the global lockdown, our wider society is now experiencing many sensations and hardships that prisoners face during their imprisonment. Degrees of deprivation and state imposed restrictions and measures remind me at least of those deprivations I hear and witness whenever I visit a prison in my role as a researcher. We’ve been told to get behind our doors and stay there. Come out for exercise and pick up essential items to meet our basic needs. These rules compare vividly to life of a prisoner. Moreover, accounts of boredom, rising domestic abuse, lack of labour, poverty, disrupted routine and dislocated sleep are all qualitative indicators of life as a prisoner. The comparators are vivid.

In-cell television

In the current context our prisons, certainly in England and Wales, are practicing social distancing measures equal to that in our communities. In sum this means more bang up- put behind their cell doors and carefully supervised to shower and make a telephone call. Work, unless essential, has stopped, education has halted, leisure time has ceased, visits with family have stopped. Prisoners spend most of their time now behind their cell doors. Whilst some prisons are attempting to provide in-cell activities, at best prison services can really only provide in-cell televisions at no cost irrespective of prisoner privilege levels. My earlier work on in-cell television discusses the therapeutic benefits and challenges of this kind of intervention. In the dark shadow of COVID-19 in-cell television becomes increasingly a measure of pacification, comfort, control and companionship.  Likewise many households have tuned in just that bit more since social isolation measures have been imposed. Unlike prisoners some of us still have the opportunity to work, volunteer, be with our families, and exploit community activities online. Adaptation to life behind our doors has, for many, been smoothed by digital engagement. Sadly our prisons in the main are communicative poor environments and the availability of technology for prisoners is limited and patchy. Social distancing measures are for prisoners at the sharp end of the risks associated with isolation, boredom and loneliness.

The digital landscape in prisons

Elsewhere I have discussed and presented both the evolving digital landscape in prisons and the benefits and challenges of digitizing our prisons. There is a digital revolution taking place in many prisons across the globe, but the pace in which this is occurring has been slow. Tempered by fear, resources, expertise and forms of resistance the prevalence of digital solutions is slow to mature. In my quest to explore this, along with other scholars and digital experts and gurus, creating a digital prison is not straightforward. However most noteworthy, there ARE solutions out there providing essential services for prisoners via digital services. Across the globe there are examples of digital services helping prisoners to learn, manage their daily lives such as ordering meals, managing their money, buying items from the prison shop, booking visits, renting films and messaging and video-calling family and friends. More ambitiously content for digital platforms provide important gateways to therapeutic and social support with issues like addiction (see Breaking Free Online), emotional management and organizing resettlement. Equally some of this is co-created by service users to ensure content directly speaks to its intended audience.

 

The current pandemic is shedding more light on the value of such initiatives, with senior practitioners and policy makers encountering the urgent demand to continue delivering justice services, whilst upholding social distancing measures. I have been privileged to observe and reflect on the birth of the digital provision and if done correctly, the rehabilitative outcomes for prisoners accessing digital services are extensive. Elsewhere Steven Van De Steene and I have impressed the importance of implementing technology to prisons with care and sensitivity. Above all this process is not a quick fix and it is not a solution to replace human interaction.

 

In the last few weeks there appears to be a change in gear towards digitizing our prisons, or at least the pandemic has aroused more curiosity to take seriously the need to allow prisoners to access more digital services. Despite this interest there are existing and robust solutions in some of our prisons across the globe. Expert providers of existing digital services have implemented many useful solutions. Steven Van De Steene, Bianaca Reisdorf and I launched a global survey to understand the digital journeys prisons are making. This is known as ‘digital maturity’. As we collect responses from global jurisdictions we will be able to understand what factors drive digitization. We could anticipate a shift in motivation as a result of the current pandemic.

Digital provision can soften social distancing in prison

I want to highlight two current examples of digital provision that would soften the blow of social distancing in our prisons. 

 

The first comes from Unilink’s offer of video visits for prisoners to connect with their families. Currently they are providing the service for free whilst the lockdown continues in UK prisons. The uptake has swollen but some prisons have not taken up the offer. Unilink took two years to design the secure video service. Based on user feedback security measures are stringent and biometric measures such as facial recognition and ID checking are in place. Video visits are recorded and prison services at liberty to risk assess the visit for each prisoner and their families. The technology is not overly complex- it runs from a browser and can operate from any device such as telephone, tablet, laptop or PC. In addition to this service, Unilink have continued to roll out their email service that now includes attachments such as photos. Their provision is available in some UK prisons, Australia and parts of Europe. In the state of Queensland in Australia prison services have

 

…partnered with Unilink to give family and friends a method of communication with prisoners and the ability to put money in prisoners’ trust funds through a new secure payment service.

 

The messaging services have attracted an 80% increase in requests for an upgrade in the last six weeks with three states in Australia taking these services up across all their establishments. Unlink’s service brings valuable connections to prisoners and their families which significantly has the potential to reduce the effects of social distancing.

The second example comes from Socrates Software. Their Socrates 360 platform assists prisoners and probationers with many aspects of their lives, such as healthcare, education and compliance with sentence conditions. The platform is accessed via locked down in-cell tablets, or via an app on users’ own devices.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the platform’s ability to enhance contact between service users and staff has generated more interest, in particular the ‘remote probation’ solution. This allows service users to ‘check in’ with their current location to show, for example, that they are at work, as a less invasive alternative to electronic tagging. This is done through a smartphone app. Socrates Software have updated the app to include information on social distancing. Messaging and video services are incorporated into the app, allowing users to remain connected to key service providers. The Socrates 360 video calling feature, specifically designed for use in the secure estate, allows users to connect to other valuable service providers and key workers such as lawyers, drug workers and health professionals, as well as to family members and friends, as an alternative to prison visits. These kinds of services assist with maintaining normality and enabling rehabilitative outcomes.

 

It is worth highlighting these services have been in existence for some time, well before social distancing was imposed. Despite infrastructural problems such as connectivity developers like Unilink and Socrates 360 have developed services that can overcome these kinds of barriers. Digital services for prisons are designed to meet security standards and appeal to users. Thus, arguments to not implement digital services based on security measures are outdated. Evidence from Australia highlights how services under crisis legislation have been freed-up from normal restrictions and can contract IT services/products due to less restrictions and the need for rapid decision-making.  Social distancing has awakened the digital appetite both inside and outside prisons. Alleviating the harmful effects of social isolation and deprivation does mean that technology is really the only solution at our disposal to ensure our public health is maintained. Traditional forms of digital deprivation must now be reviewed in our prisons. The speed in which our prisons will digitally mature is likely to increase in the wake of the global pandemic. It is unfortunate that still many of our prisons have not invested in digital services leaving prisoners isolated, bored and disconnected even more.  Reasons for this are however complex.   

 

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