New app provides comprehensive support for offenders

Electronic learning in prison and on release

Socrates Software (who sponsor the innovation category on this blog) have been kind enough to give me early access to a comprehensive suite of applications they are currently trialling with a number of prisons and probation services in the UK and abroad.

The app which is designed to work both in prison (on prison-provided tablets) and on release (on either released prisoners’ own smartphones or handsets provided for them by prisons) is currently being rolled out across 39 prisons in England and Wales. The app is still in development but already covers help with education, employment, health and wellbeing as well as being a means for communication between offenders and their supervising probation officers.

Real-world operation

The app has been designed for real-world operation both within the security constraints of prisons and in the community where data costs can be high. Data can be downloaded securely and all the apps can be operated fully without access to the internet. The user can record information on the app (via text, photo, voice or video) and it will be shared with their worker (offender manager, employment adviser etc.) when they are next online – which could just be when they are next in McDonalds or Wetherspoons.

Some of the uses which have already been trialled are:

  • Care UK uploads prisoners’ medical records so that they can take them with them on release to make continuity of care easier in the community; particularly with issues such as mental health and drug treatment where community physicians can continue the same prescribing patterns established by their custodial counterparts. Care UK can also upload community appointments for prisoners organised pre- or post-release and send service users reminders about these in the app.
  • Educational courses which prisoners can work on in their own time behind their cell doors in evenings and weekends. Assignments can be completed and sent electronically to tutors via secure wifi in the education department. Students and tutors can track their progress, students can unlock rewards for good performance and task completion.
  • Looking for employment where users can both link to job sites and use previously downloaded videos and checklists for interviewing well, disclosing convictions etc.
  • Videoconferencing with employment advisers or other helping agencies. Some organisations also used the videoconferencing facility for 5 minute pre-appointment work on the previous day, reminding service users of the plan for the next session and reminding them to complete any tasks.
  • Offender manager and service user can both use the contact section to change appointments, let each other know of any difficulties, running late etc and re-schedule without the need of going through (notoriously slow) probation office switchboards.
  • Commonly used forms bespoke to the organisation can be uploaded, so for instance a service user can fill in feedback on a job interview immediately after it ends with the information being shared with the employment adviser or supervising offender manager next time the person is online. Voice comments, photographic evidence (for example of a completed assignment) and electronic signature can all be collected within the forms.

Partnership approach

The app has been developed via a series of partnerships with prison and probation services; education and healthcare providers.

As yet, only a small proportion of the app’s potential is being utilised. However, the app could already be used for offenders on community payback to check in electronically with their supervisors – a process which provides evidence for both sides in any debate about compliance. Users take a photo (selfie or the building they are attending) which records the GPS co-ordinates and a time-stamp which is stored on the device and then uploaded when they are next online.

Fingerprint or, more usually, voice recognition can be used to ensure that not just the phone but its registered owner is at the right place at the right time.

Conclusion

Before the radical overhaul of the probation service which the Ministry of Justice’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme initiated, a number of probation trusts were starting to experiment with apps to exploit the potential of the digital age and provide service users with an enhanced service.

Most of those initiatives were derailed by the reorganisation into two separate probation entities — the public National Probation Service and the (almost entirely) 21 private Community Rehabilitation Companies.

It’s heartening to see innovation return to the justice sector and in a form which is so patently user-friendly.

 

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