Why our attitude to technology in prisons needs an upgrade

28 Apr 2016

By Head of Policy Nina Champion 


Last week I was asked to speak about technology in our jails on Radio 4’s Today programme. The piece centred on the broad provisions in the Belgian PrisonCloud system, where those in custody can use in-cell technology to access certain internet sites, make phone calls, communicate with staff and download music and films of their choosing.

Some might find the scope of what is permitted in Belgium alarming (“Prisoners allowed access to adult films and internet,” ran the accompanying headline). But my reaction, when I visited Antwerp prison as part of the European Prison Education Association, was different. I was struck by the scope of technology to improve life within prison, and particularly by how it might be used to offer richer education for men and women inside.

Prisons in England and Wales operate in what Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick called a “pre-internet dark age”, with prisoners struggling to access a computer to type on, let alone gain internet access. This extends to classrooms and libraries, where there is a de facto ban on internet use for both learner and teachers. Of the 2,000 distance-learning course Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) funds each year, most are completed with pen and paper, with assignments sent off in the post to be marked. Prisoners study up to degree level without any internet access or being able to use digital-learning resources.

Technology has become vital to how learners learn and teachers teach. The approaches that have become normal in our schools could also make education more inspiring, engaging and accessible in our jails. This is particularly vital given the poor experience of education of many in the system - nearly half have been excluded from school; nearly half have no qualifications, and a quarter have been assessed as having a learning difficulty or disability. Technology offers a better way to engage groups in the classroom, and allow the individuals to engage with further study in their cell.

And why is this important? Because education can have a transformative effect. Working in the prison system for 10 years, I’ve shook the hands of men and women who tell me that the course provided by PET was a lifeline for them, allowing them to create an identity that went beyond ‘criminal’ or ‘offender’ and imagine the possibility of a different life. We now have hard evidence from the Ministry of Justice that accessing education in prison reduces the chance of someone going on to commit another crime after released. Considering that most prisoners will be released one day, and that nearly half will go on to reoffend within a year, it is clear that the current system is not working, and needs radical change.

By its nature, technology brings risks and dangers, and proper safeguarding is vital and necessary. But I would argue that the balance of risks has been misjudged up until now. PET is advocating for the monitored and restricted use of certain technologies, with a focus on increasing access to interactive learning materials. This does not mean unlimited internet access, or the use of social media. Furthermore, an intrinsic advantage of technology is that there is a huge capacity to control access and monitor transgressions; every keystroke is accounted for. Bearing this in mind, the greater risk would be to continue to treat our penal institutions as separate from the modern, digital world, and to then expect former prisoners to effectively adapt once they are through the prison gate.

This is a view supported by most prison staff, three-quarters of whom told PET and Prison Reform Trust researchers that prisoners should have controlled access to the internet for learning. The Government too has shown signs of recognising the need for a more balanced and pragmatic approach. The important role of technology was included in the terms of reference of Dame Sally Coates’ review of education in the prison sector, which is due to be published shortly. PET is heartened by what we have heard from Dame Sally’s review so far, and hopes the extra decision-making powers promised to governors will extend to the use of technology, so that those who run prisons can decide what content should be available to prisoners, on a case-by-case basis.

Some English and Welsh prisoners may not use new technology to change their lives for the better. But others will use it to look for jobs, housing or to learn. Although there is a danger that a system will be mishandled, technology offers enough mechanisms for control and monitoring that this should be a rare occurrence. Locking someone in a cell for 23 hours a day with only a TV for company is unlikely achieve change. Providing access to a selection of the opportunities the digital world offers, gives someone the potential to use his or her jail sentence constructively - discover new strengths, build a new identity and gather relevant skills and qualifications. We know that receiving an education in prison can have a lasting and profound effect on people, reducing their chance of committing further crimes. Now we need to bring education, and rehabilitation, into the digital age.

PET's Through the Gateway report, focusing on how computers can transform rehabilitation, can be read here