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Digital Technology in Prisons

A report recently released by the Centre for Social Justice (CJS) explores the power of technology for unlocking relationships, learning and skills in UK prisons.

techUK was delighted to provide input into this report with thoughts and work directly from the tech industry. How can we modernise UK prisons? Georgie Henley, Programme Manager for Justice & Emergency Services highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system and, in some cases, it being a catalyst for digital transformation at pace. Georgie has been working with techUK members through a new working group ‘Digital Justice’ exploring a number of areas within the justice system from digital courts, skills and prevention to prisons of the future and infrastructure – 2 areas touched on widely across this report, highlighting the need for improved internet access and infrastructure. Sophie James, Programme Manager for Communications Infrastructure provided an insight into the technical challenges of building digital infrastructure into the prison estate securely and cost-effectively for prisoners. Telephony infrastructure in-cell is growing, but for the needs of prisoners in accessing online services (such as training), certain obstacles remain.

“Improving prisoners’ Internet access will develop their employment prospects and mental health, making Britain’s streets safer”, says the Centre for Social Justice

Covid-19 provides the ideal opportunity to reform Britain’s outdated prison system, a think tank co-founded by former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith has argued in its latest report.

The CJS touches on a number of key areas via their report; one of these relating to employment and the need for digital skills in a modern Britain. Exploring rehabilitation and reoffending rates, it is clear digital skills are vital when leaving the prison system and, where the prison system may have worked to reform inmates previously, according to the CJS, it now fails abysmally.

“The lack of internet in prisons contributes significantly to this educational failure”. (Lack of) Internet/ infrastructure is widely explored in this report. A number of educational courses are only available online for prisoners. Without frequent access to these courses, we are seeing a reduction in opportunities for prisoners to learn; this was especially apparent during the first national COVID-19 lockdown. It was reported that prisoners, due to the lockdown, were spending more time in their cells than they usually would be due to social distancing measures.

The CJS reported that the majority of prisons in England and Wales do not have the infrastructure to support broadband, “with just 18 out of 117’ prisons possessing in-cell cabling. With this, we have therefore seen prisoners unable to access the tools and devices they need to continue training and education.

The CJS report provided an interesting (and sadly negative) statistical insight into reoffending and employment rates of prisoners. High numbers of those leaving the system are unqualified and defined as ‘digitally excluded’ in British society. This is concerning to see as the majority of jobs nowadays require basic digital skills. It is clear more needs to be done to ensure prisoners have access to the learning devices they need to adopt these digital skills.

Not only does the report highlight key areas across education, skills and infrastructure, it also touches on the impact on prisoners well-being due to the national lockdown and their inability to see family and friends. Due to the lockdown, prisoners were confined to their cells “for up to 23.5 hours per day”. The CJS reported:

“A prisoner who successfully sustains a family relationship is 39 per cent less likely to reoffend than one who does not, yet prisoners have been barred from seeing their relatives, with family visits completely forbidden”.

Although we have seen video calling software installed across the prison estate, there is clearly much learning to be had from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for prisoners to continue (virtual) contact with their family and friends safely, in order to maintain those important relationships.

“The CSJ proposes a high-level security system in order to control and monitor prisoners’ use of technology, so that access to the Internet is limited, and focused on the precise educational and social aims set out in the report”.

Among its security recommendations and case-studies, which can be viewed in the report, “the CSJ urges that video conferencing should be accessible in secure areas with appropriate oversight by prison staff, restrict online content to approved educational, welfare, employment and rehabilitative websites, tailor access to each individual prisoner according to their risk profile, if necessary limited to security-cleared prisoners only, be subject to sanctions if abusive behaviour occurs, complement face-to-face teaching, and for in-person visits to continue as soon as possible”.

techUK’s ‘Digital Justice Working Group’ consists of tech companies and public sector representatives from across MoJ HMCTS HMPPS exploring what is needed to modernise or digital transform the justice system. Areas for exploration range from education & skills, victim care, health and digital courts to infrastructure, prisons of the future and rehabilitation. If you are a techUK member, stakeholder or tech company and want to hear more about this work, please reach out to Georgie –

To read the report in full, please click below:

Digital Technology in Prisons: Unlocking relationships, learning and skills in UK prisons


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