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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Prisons go digital

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Despite all the security challenges, the prison service is determined to modernise and equip staff and prisoners alike to thrive in a digital world.

Yes, the prison system is in crisis. Our prisons have become increasingly violent; drugs, particularly New Psychoactive Substances such as Spice are rife; and cells are often filthy and overcrowded.

But it’s been in crisis for several years now and still, every day, thousands of committed individuals, prison staff and outside agencies, go to work every day and strive to make a difference to the prisoners in their care.

These thoughts are uppermost in my mind because I was lucky enough to chair a Roadshow event for Socrates 360 software last week. The company has developed secure digital tablets and software which can be utilised in a prison setting without allowing the prisoners using them to post images of their cells on social media, access porn on the internet or generally get up to no good.

Instead the tablets are a force for good and enable prisoners, some of whom have been out of circulation of several years, to get up to speed with the digital life that the rest of us now take for granted.

The beauty of the Socrates approach is that they simply provide a platform and partner with anyone who wants to do something positive with it.

Some of the examples that stuck in my mind are set out below.

Employment

Drake Hall women’s prison in Staffordshire has developed a mutually beneficial partnership with Halford’s. Interestingly, although 94% of Halford staff are men, 60% of their customers are women so the company wanted to get more women employees. Drake Hall, who take women from all over the country, often serving long sentences, wanted a tie-up with a national employer to help find prisoners work on release. So Halford’s invested money in a prison workshop to train up women in cycle maintenance. The tablets were used for women to study the manuals for different models of bike in the same way as Halford’s in-store mechanics do. The women were also able to complete a number of tests on the tablets to prove their competence and be offered a job to start a couple of days after their release. So far, Drake Hall has placed more than a dozen women in full-time posts at Halford’s all over the country with all doing well and several regular winners of employee of the month.

Continuity of healthcare

Care UK provides prison healthcare in more than 40 prisons in England and Wales. Many people who go to prison have complex physical and mental health needs which have often been neglected in the chaos of their daily lives. Prison, then, is a chance to address long-standing problems and stabilise both physical and emotional conditions. However, Care UK is becoming increasingly aware that much of this progress was undone when prisoners were released: many of them just didn’t understand how to navigate the modern health system. They would often turn up to doctor’s appointments asking for repeat prescriptions of medication they had been receiving for several months or even years in prison only to be told this wasn’t possible because their GP could not verify this state of affairs. So Care UK worked with Socrates to upload prisoners’ medical files onto the system. On release, prisoners simply download the companion app so they can take all their medical records with them on their phone. Not only has this made continuity of care much more simple, it has given prisoners control over their health in a way that many hadn’t previously experienced.

Temporary release

Ford Open Prison in Sussex has just  won ‘Most Proactive Prison Award 2018″ from the Employers Forum to Reduce Reoffending’. About quarter of prisoners go out to work or college every day under the Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) scheme. Unsurprisingly, the Prison Service requires the governor to do a large number of spot checks to make sure that prisoners are where they’re supposed to be and are not sneaking off to the pub or getting involved in any criminal activity. This is an expensive and time-consuming activity which frequently involves five prison officers driving all over Southern England to ensure that people have turned up to work or college. Ford has developed a different app for the Socrates system which allows prisoners to use their own phones to confirm they are where they’re supposed to be; they simply take a selfie and email it to the prison who can check the photo against prison records and verify that the location provided by the geo-tag attached to the photo is the appropriate one. This simple app has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to HMP Ford.

Her Majesty’s Prisons and Probation Service (HMPPS) has its own digital service developing a range of applications for prison and probation staff. One of the most interesting initiatives is the development of digital content involving offenders describing issues and problems and how they have tackled them. Initial research has found that this digital video content is extremely effective in stimulating helpful conversations about anger management or problem solving techniques between probation officers and the individuals they supervise.

Conclusion

All these initiatives have taken months and sometimes years of work by dedicated prison and other staff who have had to adapt to the limitations of prison buildings and IT infrastructure and negotiate the complex bureaucracies of the prison service to be allowed to develop these solutions.

Unfortunately, their efforts are rarely publicly recognised, with prison media coverage, particularly at the moment, almost always focused on the failings of the system.

But by taking prisons into the digital age, these staff are building partnerships which are giving the men and women in their care the best chance of building themselves a better life on release.

 

PeoplePlus: providing innovative education for All prison learning

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