Digital technology in prisons

Work with Offenders on a new report from the Centre for Social Justice

The Centre for Social Justice, the right-leaning Think Tank founded by Iain Duncan Smith in 2004, yesterday became the latest organisation to urge the government to make digital technology accessible to people in prison. The Centre’s new report, “Digital technology in prisons: unlocking relationships, learning and skills in UK prisons” highlights the fact that our prison system remains just about the only sector in modern Britain which is almost entirely off-line.

The majority of prisons in England and Wales do not have the cabling or hardware to support broadband, with just 18 out of 117 prisons possessing in-cell cabling. Remarkably, even prison staff do not have access to the internet, such as video conferencing services. Some lower-risk prisoners in lower category prisoners may have highly restricted access via an internal system, principally for minimalist email services, but this is the exception, not the rule. Many older prisoners serving longer sentences have never held a digital device.

The CSJ argues that this digital exclusion makes it even harder for people leaving prison to find work. The Think Tank quotes official figures that say 68% of prisoners were unemployed in the four-week period before they were sent to custody (the figure is 81% for men) and just 4% of women and 11% of men are in work six weeks after their release.

Many prisoners are also under-educated and under-skilled, yet they are unable to access the majority of education and vocational training course which are increasingly delivered online in normal times and are now almost exclusively virtual during the current pandemic.

The report was published on the same day that the Ministry of Justice boasted that it has finally completed the rollout of secure video calling to all 117 prisons in England and Wales. However, the CSJ points out that prisoners are entitled to just one 30-minute call per month and that the lack of family contact since the first lockdown in March last year has taken a heavy toll of many prisoners’ relationships with their family and friends. As is often the case, the impact is most brutal on the innocent children of prisoners who have no contact with their missing parent and may often assume that the parent does not wish to be in touch.

The report argues that digitising our prisons is vital for three principal reasons: sustaining family relationships; improving digital education and employability; and facilitating prisoner welfare and well-being and delivering support for prisoners with mental health and addiction problems.

The CSJ argues that the installation of broadband technology with limited, secure access to the internet for prisoners is both overdue and necessary, and that this pressing need is intensified by the specific pressures of the lockdown prison environment. The report contends that as the use of digital platforms for personal communication, sustaining relationships, professional communication and education and learning becomes the norm, it is vital that prisoners are not deprived of the digital skills and facilities that will allow them to engage in meaningful, positive activity during their sentences.

The report makes seven key recommendations for implementing digital prisons:

  1. The installation of hardware and software to support broadband throughout the prison estate, as far as is allowed by physical limitations.
  2. The rolling out of in-cell devices with online connectivity, restricted to “white-listed” content and websites for educational and rehabilitative purposes.
  3. A restricted “Walled Garden” model to be used to guarantee security.
  4. For levels of access to the internet and digital services to be subject to an MoJ risk assessment, and the implementation of a tiered approach based on the security level of prisons and the risk profile of individual prisoners.
  5. For video calling facilities to be significantly expanded by means of rolling out broadband. Video calling should take place in a communal area, subject to supervision by staff, for the purposes of protecting the safety of the “digital visitors”. This may be able to move to an in-cell basis as the technology for secure digital monitoring of calls develops.
  6. For the implementation of digital platforms for the delivery of psychological and addiction support, as well as facilitating Through the Gate mentoring programmes and other voluntary sector engagement so these interactions can occur online.
  7. Video calling, digital educational delivery and digital psychological and wellbeing support should not replace in-person interactions but should supplement them.