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Making Prison and Probation work

Francis Toye, CEO & Founder, Unilink 

Imagine for a moment that you are responsible for the operation of information technology in prisons and probation for perhaps 10,000 inmates and a similar number of staff.  What are your priorities for investment in technology?  How do you make the choices?  What degree of risk can you take?  What about the security of the software?  Should you develop it in-house or find a third-party supplier.

As the CIO of a Justice Department you face a bewildering array of choices.  But it’s a chimera.  The risk of failure makes the possibility of procrastination real and which is why perhaps today many DoCs have major system software that was developed twenty of more years ago.  Be assured, if system runs on MS-DOS (1985) today you are not alone; at least you don’t have to be concerned about remote hacking.

Prison IT is really challenging to deliver; on the one hand rapid IT developments outside the custodial setting put massive pressure on Prison IT to deliver, and on the other budgets, politicians, the public and the risks of compromising security combine to create an environment where change is difficult to achieve if not completely unwelcome.  Outside of prison, commercial companies develop products for audiences running into billions, but these are designed to be used easily by a general population.  They are not designed for the custodial environment.

For example, can calls be monitored?  Can the system be set to only allow approved visitors?  Can children be prevented in some instances and allowed in others?   It is the reason why specialist products are needed and is just another example of the challenges facing the Justice CIO.

Here is some thoughts shared by prisoners about their experience of Prison technology. “When I moved to HMP Northumberland I was so happy to see a kiosk. In my previous prisons friends spoke of how the kiosks made everything so much easier and reduced frustration and anger. And they weren’t wrong; I could see people taking charge of their lives, of having real-time information in front of them showing them their money, their work allocations, their visits and so forth. It was like going from the information blackout that is every other prison where things happen randomly and you never know from one minute to the next what is going on, to a place where you felt like you mattered. The contrast between a prison with and without kiosks is like night and day. So imagine a kiosk, where right there all the vital information is laid out in front of you; right there, and then you can push buttons to organize visits, family visits, job applications and so forth, and get confirmation there and then that the work has been actioned.  It is like jumping from the 1860’s Pony Express to the 2020’s smartphone all in one giant leap.  It is the sense of liberation and empowerment that restores a man’s pride and gives him hope he can get through his sentence and come out a better person, that there is hope.”

Aside from reducing prisoner’s frustration and therefore self-harm and violence, the self-service kiosks also benefit the prison in that there is mundane admin work to be performed behind the scenes by OSG so front line prison officers spend less time listening to prisoners asking for help then ringing admin offices to try and resolve prisoner’s issues.

Prisoners are expected to emerge from prisons rehabilitated and ready to be a productive member of society in terms of work, housing, family, finance and personal skills. Those prisons that embrace self-service technology for prisoners via kiosks and, more recently, in-cell devices such as laptops and tablets are beginning to deliver rehabilitation programmes direct to prisoners.  These courses are tailored to meet the specific needs of the individual including education, health and wellbeing advice and access to appropriate entertainment to alleviate boredom. But these digital prisons are still the exception rather than the norm.  Until technology becomes ubiquitous the rehabilitative benefits that it offers will be fragmented.

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