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Digital technology in prisons

Digital-technology-in-prisons-1Governments around the world are challenged with the enormous financial burden posed by growing prison populations and the need to find a balance between public safety, security and a humane reaction to crime. Justice Departments and correctional agencies are trialling many initiatives to cut costs while trying to maintain safety and improve reintegration, ranging from legislation to technology.

The principle of normality is the leading concept in the development of national and international standards and guidelines to improve prisoner rights, wellbeing, and rehabilitation. The principle states that life under the execution of sentences should resemble life outside as far as possible. The UN, the EU and countries around the world see this as a major step to reducing incarceration rates.

We live in a world where we use digital technology to meet our basic needs – at work, at home, to learn and for leisure. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that this technology isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s an essential part of our everyday life. Prisoners are often among the most digitally excluded in our society, yet they need to be prepared to re-enter the digital world when their sentence completes. Modern technology can help transform prisoners lives from one of dependency to self-responsibility, help free prison staff to spend more time directly engaging with prisoners through operational efficiencies, and lead to a more supportive rather than a punitive environment.

Quick facts

  • The cost to the UK of prisoner reoffending is £18.1 billion per year
  • 23% of new prison admissions in England and Wales 2019-2020 were for sentences of 4 years or less
  • 63% of those who are released from a sentence of 6 months or less, re-offend
  • Many reoffenders struggle with a range of complex needs which lead them into a pattern of offending. Tailored community sentences that target the relevant issues and break the cycle of offending is seen as a more successful way of rehabilitating the offender than short prison sentences
  • Prisons in England and Wales are rooted in a pre-digital age, work continues across the estate to install modern-day basics such as broadband internet
  • A prisoner who successfully sustains a family relationship is 39 per cent less likely to re-offend than one who does not
  • 43 per cent of prisoners have a diagnosed mental illness, and one-fifth of male prisoners have attempted suicide
  • The Prison Reform Trust estimates that 60 per cent of prisoners suffer from severe literacy or numeracy impairment


The solution

Unilink strongly believes in the power of technology to support the digital transformation journey in corrections and has a number of solutions to improve prisoner’s wellbeing and rehabilitation.

Unilink’s Prisoner Self-Service is a next-generation platform that enables the secure and controlled delivery of digital content and services, tailored to the specific needs of the offender, helping them to engage in change and prepare for reintegration into society. The solution is device agnostic – it can be accessed with in-cell devices such as tablets or laptops, or on biometrically enabled, wing-based kiosks, specifically designed to withstand heavy attack. 

The Self-Service system transforms prisons by automating and streamlining routine offender administrative tasks. Offenders can make a variety of requests, purchase items, view their account balance, schedule their visits, receive e-messages and more. It gives offenders the responsibility of controlling their own affairs, increasing accountability which is proven to have a rehabilitative impact. It reduces the administrative burden for staff, freeing them to spend more time with offenders, which reduces frustration, and increases the mental well-being of both inmates and staff. More than 2,000,000,000 Prisoner Self-Service transactions have been processed to date.

In addition to routine administration tasks, Unilink’s Self-Service can provide secure internet access to white-listed websites, learning management systems for education and multimedia content such as eBooks, music, and TV (where allowed).

Independent research into the effectiveness of Self-Service

Professor Cynthia McDougall OBE of the University of York and Dr Dominic Pearson of Portsmouth University completed the world’s first academic research into the effect of Unilink’s Prisoner Self-Service technology in 2017, looking specifically at the impact of introducing kiosks and in-cell devices in custodial environments for both prisoners and prison staff. The research findings show that there are many positive impacts in introducing this technology:

  • 94% increase in completions of Offending Behaviour Programmes
  • A statistically significant reduction in adjudications
  • A 4% reduction in reoffending
  • A 12% reduction in staff sickness
  • Statistically significant savings in staff time
  • 93% agree the system is easy to use
  • Offenders taking responsibility for finances and other processes rather than asking staff
  • Purchase of fruit from the canteen increased by over 50% following the introduction of the system
  • The ability to use technology to contact an external supervisor (such as an offender manager), together with assistance finding accommodation and employment after release, significantly improved prisoner wellbeing and mental health

Link to research

In March 2020 Dr Emma Palmer of the University of Leicester conducted an evaluation of digital technology in prisons in England and Wales for the Ministry of Justice, looking specifically at the impact of kiosks, in-cell PIN phones and in-cell laptops.  The research findings reaffirmed many of the positive impacts of the 2017 study:

  • An average of 81% found the kiosk system easy to use
  • Over 90 per cent of prisoners reported using the kiosks at least “every 2 or 3 days a week”
  • For prisoners the transparency of the digital applications system was a great improvement. They commented that under the paper-based system, applications would go missing or take a long time to be responded to. The ability to see that the application had been submitted directly to the appropriate department, to monitor the application, and to receive a response through the system was seen as an improvement

“You’ve got a digital trail which is really handy. And it’s instant. If you put a paper app in today, there’s no guarantee that it won’t get to the right department in five, six, seven days even or it might go missing which used to happen a lot. Now, it’s generated instantly.” (Prisoner)

  • The process for checking account balances was reported to be significantly better using Self-Service and allowed prisoners to budget better
  • Staff and prisoners reported a perceived reduction in incidents of friction and feelings of tension
  • Prisoners and staff noted an improvement in psychological wellbeing and an increase in feelings of agency and autonomy as a result of this technology being introduced

“And there’s a sense of pride about being able to manage your own life to some extent. You know, you relinquish so much of the control over your own life that it is actually quite nice just to organise yourself. In terms of living more independently, it lets you do that for sure.” (Prisoner)

  • 91 hours weekly saving in time for collecting and returning applications through using technology rather than paper (the equivalent of two full-time officers)
  • 4.5 hours weekly saving in time for menu orders
  • 10.5 hours weekly saving in time for canteen orders
  • 100% reduction in the need for prison staff interaction for checking account balancing – saving an average of 8 mins of staff time per account balance check 
  • A 73% reduction in task time for distributing prison wide notices


Link to research

The results 

The research has shown that empowering prisoners with Self-Service produces a range of benefits both for the prisoner and the prison staff. The key benefit being the rehabilitative effect on the prisoner, helping to reduce the massive financial burden of reoffending. For the prison staff, it is a way to significantly reduce hours spent on administrative work, freeing them to spend more time working directly with prisoners building more meaningful relationships.



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