Empowering prisoners through technology

Technology has the power to change lives. Especially in a prison environment.

Unilink’s self-service kiosks allow a prisoner to take responsibility for activities that would normally be undertaken by prison staff. These include checking the balance of their private cash, choosing and ordering meals, and booking social visits, gym and education sessions. The impact of technology on the running of the prisons where it is implemented was measured by prof. Cynthia McDougall from York University and her team at what is the first academic research on CMS.

The study was based on a number of factors, including: ease of use by the prisoners; their reaction of this added responsibility; how this influenced their interactions with prison staff; and the amount of staff time released for other (higher value) activities.

The findings were presented at Digital Leaders Salon in London. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the public sector is increasingly asked to maintain good performance at a lower cost, attendees from the HMPPS were keen to understand the potential cashable savings.

Interestingly, one of the more unexpected and intriguing finding of the study was that the purchase of fruit from the canteen increased by over 50% following the introduction of the kiosks. Rather than depending on a paper form, prisoners now had access to pictures of the options available, and could use their personal savings or wages to exercise a more informed choice.

This makes the process more akin to the online grocery shopping experience that is increasingly popular outside prisons. For those who need help with reading and writing, it is all too easy to tick the same item on the prison canteen list rather than risk choosing something they do not like or did not want.

The kiosks open up a world of possibilities and choices. Healthier lifestyles can help improve people’s sense of well-being and self-worth. Prisoners are no different.  People have to want to improve and, like everyone else, need encouragement to start and persevere.

Looking beyond the administrative efficiency of the prison and canteen, it is heartened to hear that, when given some personal control via the kiosk, many prisoners chose fruit. The imaginative use of technology, and new ways of empowering prisoners to make informed choices, can support prisoners to get fit and prepare for healthier lives when they go back into the community.