Can you imagine running a £5.6bn business without the internet? The UK prison system does.
Although people don’t often think of prison as a business, that’s exactly what it is. And it’s huge. It spent £5.6bn last year; and that’s before you include the central MoJ policy work, the court system, or even the police system; that’s just prisons. That’s more than five times Apple UK’s revenue. In a UK prison you cannot have a mobile phone, cannot access wifi and even as a member of staff, most websites are blocked for use. So how do you run a £5.6bn business without technology? The answer, it seems, is pretty badly.
In the UK there are currently around 80,000 people serving sentences across 117 prisons. Nearly 70,000 people are released from prison each year with nearly half of those reoffending within the first 12 months. That’s a lot of people, a lot of crimes and a lot of money. Over £18bn to be precise. Reoffending rates are stubborn and haven’t shifted in decades. This fuels an ingrained belief that things will never change, because they have never changed.
Outside of prison, technology is ubiquitous. It is used for everything from shopping to getting paid, accessing benefits to researching where to go for dinner. The lack of access to technology in prisons restricts people’s access to education, their access to job opportunities and also places a huge burden on prison officers and those running prisons. It can also leave those who spend extended periods in the prison system woefully unprepared for the technological advancements they’ll encounter upon release.
Dr Emma Palmer’s research into technology in prisons showed how it had the potential to improve prisoner’s behaviour by positioning it as a privilege to be earned. Prisoners who had access to basic technology to manage their daily lives were more equipped to integrate back into society and saved prison staff time. For example, the ability to communicate with relevant teams inside and outside of prison saved 91 hours per prison per week of staff time. That’s the equivalent of two prison officers working an entire week. And, finally, engaging with education can reduce reoffending by 43 percent. Common sense, allied with a staggering body of evidence, clearly indicates the need for technology in prisons.
And yet, in the UK, most prison activity is done using paper. The greatest technology implementation in the UK prison system that is frequently used is the “kiosk” on the wings. The kiosk allows you to complete basic operational tasks such as seeing how much money you have in your account, whether you’ve been accepted onto an activity and selecting meals for the upcoming week. This is a scarce resource with up to 30 people sharing one kiosk in their limited time out of cells (currently most get only 30 minutes). It is also unique to prisons, and doesn’t prepare prisoners for the technology they’ll encounter on the outside. Most other access to technology is done in classrooms with computers that are not connected to any form of server or internet but restricted solely to the use of Microsoft Suite. These are only available to a small number of prisoners and usually only open for a few days a week.
We are seeing some new technology provision on the horizon. Virtual Campus (VC), managed by Meganexus, is a secure intranet service designed to allow people in prison and those that have been released to access training and job opportunities. It is rolled out in 107 prisons, although access to the computers with the VC has been extremely limited. Out of the c. 80,000 prisoners, less than 5,000 had meaningful use of the Virtual Campus. Coracle laptops have been designed to host learning content for people to use within their cell. Again, they have been technically rolled out to 25 prisons, but on-the-ground intel says these laptops are generally kept locked away or used for specific short courses. There are some great examples where these have had a really positive impact. When Covid struck, HMP Pentonville thought they would need to stop their Criminology course, where prisoners and students from the University of Westminster study together. Some determined staff and Coracle laptops turned this around to keep this programme going in the pandemic, against the backdrop of nearly all other education nationally ceasing. Jose Aguiar said: “This is a historical moment for education in prison. Prisons need to follow what other educational institutions have been doing and provide their residents access to education opportunities in these challenging times”. However, this example is the exception, not the rule. Their impact is severely limited by the anti-technology mindset and behaviours ingrained in the prison system.
Norway used to have a greater reoffending rate than the UK, with prison culture and provision also similar to the UK’s . In the 1990s, they changed their mindset; their reoffending rates are now less than 20%. Norway believes a prison sentence should remove your liberty, but beyond that your life should be equivocal to life beyond the prison wall. This is in line with European Prisons’ ruling “Life in prison shall approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community.” Even in Norway’s highest security prison, inmates have a toilet, shower and a fridge within their cells and access to communal kitchens. Norwegian prisons focus on rehabilitation through wellbeing activities, education and preparation for employment. They are continually investing in technology, with access to internet for education, in-cell telephones and self-service machines. Prisoners in Norway can communicate with teachers outside of the prison, share classroom work with external education providers and access interactive content; none of which is generally possible in the UK. The UK imprisons 167 people per 100,000 of their population; Norway imprisons 54.
Belgium’s focus on rehabilitation has led to the roll out of PrisonCloud. PrisonCloud is in-cell technology that allows prisoners to access the internet with limitations. This allows them to do e-learning, manage day-to-day prison life, connect with family and even access meditation channels. Prisoners are given a headset, monitor, mouse and keyboard to access the internet with all their data monitored and stored within the prisons’ servers. Prisoners can also access music and films,. Belgium’s reoffending rate is 25%, about half of the UK’s.
Interestingly, one of the reasons that Belgium decided to roll out proper technology and access to the (restricted) internet was because of the huge amount of illegal technology smuggled into prisons. In the UK, illegal mobile phone usage is one of the biggest threats, according to prison governors. 80% of prisoners with illegal phones use them to contact friends and family. These illegal phones can also be used to manage criminal activity inside and outside the prison. Prisoners in the UK are allowed to call friends and family from landline controlled phones on the wings. However, there is often not much time to access these phones and there are politics between the prisoners of who can access them. This scarce resource that therefore restricts prisoners contacting their loved ones creates a lot of the violence on the wings. Ironically, illegal mobile phones are reported to therefore reduce this on-wing violence. There is evidence that access to meaningful technology in-cell reduces the illegal tech industry in prisons, which is very harmful to people in prison and can also allow people to continue their criminal activity on the outside.
Over the next 10 years, nearly three quarters of a million people will be released from the prison system. Just under half of these will go on to re-offend. Those figures are simply staggering and must be at the forefront of our thinking when building preventative strategies to help prison leavers re-assimilate into society. The benefits of using technology in prisons are myriad. When used correctly, it has the ability to improve people’s lives, reduce the impact on their families and prepare them for life on the outside. This can have a direct impact on crime reduction and can save millions in taxpayer’s money. No matter where you place yourself on the political spectrum, this is something we can all believe in.
Dee Norval is the Founder of Breakthrough Social Enterprise which builds prisons that boost potential and businesses that relish the talent. Breakthrough selects and trains exceptional prison leavers to bring diverse, inspiring talent to our Employer partners. We currently focus on individuals who ambitiously want to pursue a career in technology. If you are interested in hearing more about Breakthrough, becoming a volunteer or an Employer partner, please get in touch.