Digital support in prison
This is the third in my new series of posts profiling well-known British companies with proven digital expertise in the criminal justice sector. As well as providing a picture of the company and its products, I’ll be asking why so many British tech companies in the sector are more successful at selling their wares in other countries, despite starting their journey on these shores.
This week’s post looks at the work of the Breaking Free Group (part of TELUS Health) which specialises in developing digital behaviour change programmes for people with drug and alcohol problems. Breaking Free is a UK company founded in 2010 and their online programmes will be well known to many readers working in the drug and alcohol field.
Breaking Free designed the only online substance misuse programme which is accredited by HMPPS and the programme is widely available in prisons in England and Wales. Despite this, the programme is not currently available to people on probation in the community, including those on DRR programmes (unless their treatment provider provides access to it).
The company also provides the programme to people in prison in 14 different US states in a range of different institutions, as well as multiple county and city jails. The programme is rolled out across 31 different custodial establishments in the state of Ohio which has allowed for rigorous evaluation. You can watch a short video explaining the US version of the prison Breaking Free programme below.
The prison version of the programme has been completely re-written to reflect life inside. It contains additional information about strategies and skills for refusing offers of drugs in prison in addition to extra emphasis on overdose awareness and management because of the increased risk of overdose deaths on release. The programme retains its emphasis on planning purposeful activity, but this has been modified to reflect what people can do in prison to get a sense of achievement and purpose. The programme is used across all different types of prisons including the male and female estate, and for institutions with differing levels of security. Due to its success in engaging high rates of women compared to what is expected with in-person services, additional research is currently underway to better understand this area of interest.
Differences between UK and US
The availability of secure tablets to people in prison is far more universal in the USA. This easy and continuous access to the programme means that it is more heavily used. Monitoring in the US found that people in prison were using the Breaking Free programme 24 hours a day including very many people engaging in the middle of the night. My assumption is that many people alone in their cell, unable to sleep because of concerns about their life, both in prison and on release, have found a positive coping strategy in accessing the programme.
The easy access to the programme across the US criminal justice system means that people’s progress on their recovery journeys and continuous access to online support is not interrupted when they move between institutions or are released.
Compare this situation to this country, where only a small number of our recently built prisons provide easy access to digital help and support, meaning that this help is vulnerable to interruption when someone moves on in their sentence.
On a positive note, the new HMPPS telemedicines project will help, since the Breaking Free programme will be on secure laptops for people in prison to use. However, access will be much more limited compared to the situation in the US.
Despite what we think of as a much more restrictive custodial environment in the USA, access to technology is much more widespread and the associated risks appear to be managed much more appropriately and proportionately than in this country. New initiatives are rigorously tested but, if successful, are rolled out rapidly in a manner which we just don’t see in the UK.