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The digital divide in our prisons

The Prisoner Learning Alliance looks at ten examples of how technology is being used as part of learning in prisons around the world.

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Lessons from prisons abroad

The coronavirus pandemic exposed just how poor digital access across our prison estate remains. Despite a handful of different initiatives (and plenty of potential solutions), the lack of a clear strategy on digital technology in custody means that England and Wales are trailing behind many other countries. A new publication by the Prisoner Learning Alliance looks at how ten prisons around the world are making use of digital technology to deliver education. Some of the examples are featured below.

Australia

Prisoners in Australia can use digital technology to participate in undergraduate degrees and a tertiary preparation pathways programme at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ). Students use an offline remote learning system installed on Dell education series laptops that can be used by prisoners in their cells.

Through trial and error in earlier projects, USQ eliminated fixed computers in common areas (which limited the time prisoners could spend writing assignments, and forced students to compete for access) and also e-readers (whose screens were too small for effective studying). USQ understood that for its prison learners to be able to dedicate the time they needed to studying, they would need access to in-cell technology.

Using laptops means that USQ prisoner learners can spend longer on assignments and fit in studying alongside work, visits and other time out of their cells. Prisoners cannot access the internet through the laptops, so education staff at correctional centres access course materials via a USQ portal and load the educational material onto the laptops for the students.

The project utilised technology effectively, but also innovated in different ways. Prison and university staff met, prison officers and education staff visited USQ’s campus, and USQ’s academic and administration staff visited prisons. This enabled better relationships to develop and made it possible to iron out issues and overcome barriers. The trust this engendered meant that prison officers could be confident in the security of the technology, and that university staff could understand some of the difficulties prisons might face in facilitating distance learning. Significantly, after these meetings were in place, the
progression rate of USQ prison learners increased dramatically.

Belgium

In 2016, Beveren Prison in Antwerp introduced PrisonCloud, a secure, in-cell platform comprised of a fixed computer, a monitor, a keyboard and a headset. It allows prisoners to complete e-learning, watch films and TV, and have control over some aspects of prison life such as food, medical appointments and their prison finances (comparable to a personal form of the self-service kiosks which are located in communal areas in prisons in the England and Wales). Certain pre-approved websites can also be accessed and availability of online reading materials and the phone-call function mean that prisoners can communicate and handle any changes or concerns regarding their case. Feedback from prisoners is positive – prisoners have said that PrisonCloud provides them with meaningful activity and the digital system designed to control some aspects of prison life makes things run more smoothly.

© Andy Aitchison

Finland

In Finnish prisons, digital connectivity for communication and learning has been driven by the idea that prison life should resemble that of life outside as much as possible, as well as the rise in proportion of foreign national prisoners, who are often unable to participate in visits. Internet access is under development for uses such as online banking, video calls and education, and is being tested in different ways in prisons across the country. One such example is in Turku prison, where prisoners can use laptops and computers in libraries, and have access to pre-approved websites through the internet.

Many of the websites available are educational, and one course that prisoners can access is an Artificial Intelligence course that was developed by the University of Helsinki. The Finnish Criminal Sanctions Agency (similar to HMPPS), who decides on which websites can be accessed, primarily saw the course as a way of enabling prisoners to reintegrate into the digital-first employment market upon their release. However, as well as the economic motivations, the decision was also driven by a desire to ensure that no one is left behind in an increasingly digital world.

New Zealand

In New Zealand, the University of Otago worked with the charity Methodist Mission Southern to introduce virtual reality to prisons to help Otago prisoners with dyslexia and other learning difficulties improve their basic literacy and numeracy.

The virtual reality headset ‘transports’ prisoners to a street with a garage, where they must read signs and messages to open doors and ‘move’ through the environment. They then enter a garage and work their way through numeracy and literacy activities. The technology is based on the idea that people with dyslexia and other learning difficulties often learn better through alternatives to traditional ‘pen and paper’ methods. Virtual reality can be used to create a more interesting and relevant environment and remove some of the negative associations some students may have with classrooms.

USA

The Last Mile (TLM) (which inspired our own Code 4000) is a not-for-profit organisation that runs offline
coding programmes in prisons in California, Indiana, Kansas and Oklahoma. It teaches different technological and digital communication skills and focuses on the employment options and opportunities for participants upon their release. TLM focuses on its employment work through projects such as TLM Works and The Next Chapter.

The Last Mile Works is a web development shop inside San Quentin prison that employs prisoners who are graduates of a partnership between TLM and the California Industry Prison Authority to develop bespoke software solutions for clients. 

Accessing the internet is illegal in US prisons, but prisoners at San Quentin constructed an infrastructure hosted on the prison’s local server to simulate the internet. This means prisoners can begin to learn how the internet works without having access to it. 

The Next Chapter is an apprenticeship programme which trains and mentors graduates from The Last Mile, providing them with employment upon release and other resettlement support. One of the participating employers, Slack, said that it recognised that there is an increasing skills shortage in coding, a skill that can be learnt by anyone who is hardworking and has lots of time, making it well suited to learners in prison. The programme also provides housing, financial literacy and other workplace culture
support to its apprentices when they are released from prison to try to avoid issues interfering with participants’ ability to continue and complete the apprenticeship.

 

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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