Drugs and ‘Digital Revolutions’ in Prisons

27 Sep 2017

Report from the PLA Conference 2017

Speakers on the afternoon Panel:

Victoria Knight, Senior Research Fellow, De Montfort University
Carlotta Allum, Founder, Stretch
Neville Brooks, Lead Consultant, njb consultancy

Pioneering uses of technology, digital storytelling and substance misuse education in prisons were the agenda-pushing topics at the PLA Conference 2017.

"Our prisons are at the beginning of a digital revolution. It is an inevitability; it will happen,” said Victoria Knight, Senior Research Fellow at De Montfort University who specialises in the use of digital technologies in prisons.

Knight has recently commissioned a public opinion survey around the acceptability of prisoners’ access to digital technology, with surprising results.

"I was routinely attending meetings with senior prison staff, among whom there was a strong will to progress digitally but there was also a fear of ‘What will the public think?’, she said. “But I got some really interesting data about what the public thinks, and they aren't as punitive as we're led to believe. They're happy for their taxpayers' money to be spent, as long as it leads to rehabilitation.”

More work needs to be done, said Knight, on informing the public about what is currently available (or unavailable) in prisons, and how technology could be used to ultimately lower the risk of reoffending.

Knight spoke about the technology currently available in Belgian prisons, where prisoners typically have a computer setup in their cell, which they can use to order services, communicate via telephone and email, use learning materials, access different services within the prison, and gain access to their legal files.

This benefits the prisoner in terms of building digital literacy, improving family relationships, and improving wellbeing, said Knight. “I've seen some really lovely examples of using technology both through education and also clinical practice, to de-escalate anxious prisoners for example, as well as managing mood." But she warned these advances need to be managed carefully so as to not result in less human contact with staff or families.  

Carlotta Allum, the founder of the charity Stretch, brings technology into prisons as part of her work running digital storytelling workshops.

“Retelling your story, and redefining yourself is part of the rehabilitative process, it is empowering and it builds confidence,” she said. "The change that happens in the prisoners, and the process they go through is always amazing.”

Allum began her talk by showing a short film made by PET alumna Jane, which can be watched below.

Stretch works with iPads. Using ‘everyday’ technology like this is a key part of ‘normalisation’, she said, part of “bringing in what goes on in the outside world”.  

Allum has faced some difficulties getting this technology into prison - the attitude is very different in each institution. Use of technology aside, she said some prisons have lately stopped visits from outside charities altogether because they do not have the staff capacity to support them.

Neville Brooks, lead consultant at njb Consultancy, said storytelling is a key part of the substance misuse training programme he is piloting at the open prison HMP Prescoed. "There's always a story that's taken someone to where they are," he said. “And the experience of one prisoner can be used to help others.”

Brooks manages substance misuse programme CHASE. Named by course participants, CHASE stands for Collectively Heighten Awareness of Substance misuse through Education. The 10-week course is co-run with Prescoed’s Offender Interventions and Education Departments, and aims to promote personal wellbeing, provide a gateway to qualifications and employment and ultimately reduce the risk of re-offending.

The course is aimed at those with personal experience of substance misuse, the topic of drugs is used to ‘hook in’ potentially reluctant learners, said Brooks. "You've got to have something that pulls them in, something that attracts them. We use drugs: we talk about drugs, and we look at the impact drugs has in the world."

Through taking the course, participants can gain qualifications up to Level 4 in subjects including qualifications in Counselling, Mental Health and First Aid, as well as Working with Substance Misuse.  

In the year since it has been running, six participants in the course have gone on to find employment in this field on release. Others have gone on to degrees related to the social sciences, while more have helped a local college draft a curriculum for substance misuse education in the community. Positive drug tests in the prison have decreased and they are commissioning some research to find out why. The project is an example of the sort of multi-agency partnership working that may become more common in prisons when Governors take control of commissioning education next year.

Brooks concluded that "we found that a lot of the students, once they grasp hold of education, they want to go forward. They begin to stretch; they begin to push themselves."

Slides are available below:

Victoria Knight Presentation.pptx.

Carlotta Allum.pptx

Neville Brooks.pptx

Find further information about the Conference agenda and participants, what was said in workshops and other panels here.