Digital Technology in Prisons: Unlocking relationships, learning and skills in UK prisons
by Gavin Rice, CSJ Head of Work and Welfare policy
Many of Britain’s prisons are Victorian buildings constructed for a Victorian age.
Nearly all of the UK has access to the internet, with 62 million users in 2020. Even before Covid-19 at least 68% of us regularly used the internet for work, with remote working now the norm for many. In the years before 2020 many aspects of our lives were shifting online, and the national lockdowns have only accelerated this process.
It may come as a shock, then, to learn that the prisoner population has no internet access at all. Just 18 of the 117 prisons in England and Wales have in-cell cabling, and even prison staff do not have full access to video calling facilities. Since Covid-19 conditions in prisons have been dire, with prisoners locked up for 23.5 hours per day.
One fifth of male prisoners have attempted suicide, even before coronavirus, and prisoners are 3.7 times more likely to take their own lives than the average person.
Lockdown has resulted in relationships with partners, children and loved ones being cut off. The government has rolled out video calling across the estate, but prisoners are limited to just one 30 minute call per month.
Prisoner education has all but stopped, with teachers banned from visiting prisons that are locked down. While the nation’s children have made increasing use of online learning, no such possibility exists – even for those prisoners who want to make something of their lives. 20-30% of prisoners have a learning disability in some form, 47% have no qualifications, and three fifths leave custody with no identifiable educational improvement. Recidivism is huge, costing the taxpayer an estimated £18.1 billion per year.
Describing the isolation experienced by many prisoners, one partner said:
“My three-year-old grandson hasn’t seen his dad for 11 weeks and yesterday he said, ‘Daddy has gone now’. The impact on the children (and the parents) is heart-breaking.”
One prisoner told interviewers: “If I don’t see my family I will lose them, if I lose them what have I got left?”.
In our latest report, the CSJ makes the case that denying prisoners a family life, and blocking access to education, is unsustainable. As society develops technologically, denying prisoners the use of digital facilities for the building blocks of life, from communicating with relatives to education, cannot be justified.
By continuing to leave prisoners in a pre-internet age, we are systematically making them unable to function in the world they will enter upon release. We are therefore calling for broadband to be rolled out – with the right security and controls – across the prison estate.
A prisoner who successfully sustains a family relationship is 39% less likely to reoffend than one who does, and the government has formally accepted the recommendations around promoting family life made by Lord Farmer in 2017. Broadband would increase video calling capacity exponentially, making it a normal and standard form of communicating – though not as a replacement for in-person visits once Covid is over.
By denying prisoners the opportunity to gain the benefits made possible by education we are fostering a ticking time bomb of reoffending. Many prisoners have never used or held a digital device. Digitally excluded, without qualifications and unready for the workplace, prisoners are all the more likely to slide back into a life of crime. A phased introduction of online learning utilising in-cell devices would transform prisoner rehabilitation.
Finally, a myriad of third sector organisations, both professional and charitable, already exist with the aim of transforming prisoners’ lives. They provide mentoring, advice, case working services and addiction support to prisoners, but have been denied access during lockdown.
The installation of in-cell telephony in some prisons has resulted in an explosion of calls to the Samaritans skyrocket, demonstrating that when it comes to mental health and emotional support there is much more work to be done. Providing digital access could transform access levels for these organisations.
Contrary perceptions, the public are supportive of giving internet access to prisoners, provided that security can be guaranteed and that there is a measurable positive effect on rates of reoffending. The technology to ensure security is there, as is the evidence for the benefits digital access could bring.
Covid-19 has shone a light on a pre-existing problem: UK prisons are languishing in a dark age. Bringing prisons into the 21st century is long overdue. The risks posed to society by the nation’s eye-watering rate of reoffending are too great and, given the cost of inaction, bringing prisons online is something we can’t afford not to do.
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