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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

The role of technology in offender rehabilitation

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A new commentary paper from the team at Breaking Free discusses the increasingly significant role new technologies, specifically digital technologies, are playing in the rehabilitation of offenders.

A new article from the team at Breaking Free Online explores the increasing importance of digital technology in promoting rehabilitation.

The article is wide-ranging and looks at:

  • The feelings of connection to the outside world which television and telephones-calls home can provide for offenders in prison, and the sense of agency self-service kiosks can provide in allowing such offenders to have more control over the lives during their sentence.
  • The ways in which digital technologies are increasing access to evidence-based interventions to support offenders to overcome some of the difficulties they face that often underpin their offending, including interventions for substance misuse, violent behaviour, and thinking skills programmes.
  • Telehealth- allowing offenders to video-conference with health professionals from prison (driven, of course, by the desire to cut prison healthcare budgets).
  • Apps and other technologies which support offenders’ roads to desistance on release from prison.

Connectivity

Although many of the technologies discussed are only just starting to be implemented in the UK, some have already become part of every day prison life. For example, research has demonstrated that for many offenders, having access to television whilst in prison can provide a sense of ‘normalcy’ and connection with the outside world, and may assuage the added distress of isolation and boredom. Additionally, the important role that phone-calls home to loved ones has in the early stages of rehabilitation, before offenders have been released to
the community, can play an important role in maintaining feelings of connections with people back home, and can alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Developing offenders’ skills and knowledge

Increasing access to computers and to parts of the Internet has enabled prisoners in many countries to access a much wider range of educational and vocational courses than can be provided within prison walls. HMPPS’ virtual campus is the best known such initiative in England and Wales.

Digital interventions for  psychosocial/behavioural health

Since 2015, Breaking Free Online, a computer-assisted therapy programme for drug and alcohol users has been delivered in English & Welsh prisons. The same team launched Breaking Free from Smoking last year designed to support prisoners no longer permitted to smoke in the prison environment.

The evolution of digital hardware

In addition to the proliferation of new digital interventions and other software designed to support
offender rehabilitation, the hardware used to deliver such programmes is also evolving. For example, there are plans in the UK to provide tablets and other in-cell technologies on prison wings, alongside access to computer suites and the virtual campus, in order to allow offenders to access digital interventions and other digital rehabilitative materials from their cells. New prisons such as HMP Berwyn provide a telephone and laptop for each occupant to allow them to have full agency in ordering toiletries and other products, and organising visits and appointments.

Challenges… 

Although enthusiasts about the potential of digital technology to promote rehabilitation, the authors (Sarah Elison, Glyn Davies, Jonathan Ward, Stephanie Dugdale and John Weekes) also highlight some of the challenges and controversies around its implementation.

Funding

Firstly, funding for such technologies is a major barrier, because although new rehabilitative technologies have the capacity to be cost-effective and bring in efficiencies in the longer-term, in the short-term during initial commissioning and implementation, they still need substantial amount of investment. And given spending on new technologies has to compete with other budgetary demands such as staffing or building maintenance, this further reduces the chances that new rehabilitative technologies will be commissioned. This is why the ‘Digital Pri sons’ initiative, which has instigated the building of prisons like HMP Berwyn, has recently been suspended by the UK Government, who now want to prioritise spending on improving basic living conditions in prisons, before spending on what are currently perceived as peripheral initiatives. In other words, Governments have to get
the basics right in terms of ensuring prisons are humane environments, before spending money on additional, innovative rehabilitation resources.

Environment

The very nature of prison buildings can also be a major barrier to implementation of new rehabilitative technologies, as many prisons and penal institutions can be outdated and require substantial investment in order to build the infrastructure required to support the introduction of new technologies, including internet cabling or Wi-Fi. The introduction of this infrastructure is also expensive and labour intensive, which given the current climate of austerity in countries such as the UK, may be perceived as an unnecessary burden on an already significantly under-funded sector. 

…and Controversies

The most obvious controversial area is that there are many amongst both the public and politicians who complain that providing offenders with access to technology whilst they serve their prison sentences is ‘indulgent’ or providing undeserving privileges. This is of course amplified by some prisoners’ own technological ingenuity — using drones to bring in drugs or cell phones to continue running criminal enterprises in the community.

Conclusion

The authors conclude that the implementation of digital technologies is both inevitable but also likely to be slow and fraught with difficulties, particularly if insufficient attention is paid to equipping staff with the skills and autonomy to use them appropriately. 

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