During this pandemic, technology has become, for most of us, an indispensable tool for working, staying in touch with our loved ones and accessing services. It has changed the way many services are delivered, with, for example, 99% of GPs providing remote consultations. However, the digital divide has also been exacerbated. Those without the skills to use, or who cannot afford, the right devices and connectivity have been cut off. One group of people who receive less attention – prisoners – have been totally left behind.
Prisons are digitally barren places, where prisoners – rightly – don’t have free access to the internet, and all but two prisons offer no regular access to a computer. These computers have extremely limited functions – they don’t even have Microsoft Word, such is the concern over security.
The lack of investment in technologies for prisoners is in keeping with the punitive aspect of prisons, but there are direct trade off with rehabilitation. Government research shows that prisoners experience “supercharged” digital exclusion, meaning many are completely unprepared to navigate the digital world.
Prisoners who have served less than a year are more than 9% less likely to reoffend if they have a job offer when they are released. However, you need the internet to apply for most jobs, as well as a minimum level of digital literacy and skills. By not having access to these tools, we’re setting rehabilitation up to fail.
All the while, society pays the consequences of not ending cycles of offending. Around 61% of adults who go to prison for less than a year reoffend within 12 months, and reoffending is estimated to cost the taxpayer a staggering £18bn a year.
These problems have persisted for decades, with slow progress to expand digital provision. Now, the coronavirus could be a reckoning. Without recourse to digital services during lockdown, prisoners have been locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, with no education and training, and the barebones of other services. With in-person visits cancelled, prisons had to work rapidly to enable video calls to take place – prisoners visited by their families are 40% less likely to reoffend.
The government should be commended for acting swiftly to lock down prisons and stop the virus spreading – but rehabilitation should not be locked down, too.
Reform argues in a new report published today that – just as the rest of the public sector has benefitted from digital, prisons should be able to harness the enormous potential for technology to reduce reoffending.
Pockets of innovation in the UK and abroad show that in-cell technology can offer a range of benefits. This mean prisoners can access education programmes, self-help courses, and even accredited substance abuse treatment programmes both out of hours, and when face-to-face services aren’t available, such as due to Covid. They can also have far easier contact with their families and support services.
Restricted internet access can be enabled for these purposes. Prisons in several countries, including the UK, are trying to enable access to services with a ‘walled garden’ intranet, allowing for legitimate use whilst blocking dangerous and inappropriate content.
Support also can’t end at the prison gates. Individuals should be released from prison with a cheap device that has internet connectivity. Prisoners need to be able to access online services in the community – and this is even more vital during the pandemic, when face-to-face support may be unavailable.
Bringing prisons into the digital age will require investments in IT infrastructure and changes to the ways prisoners and staff live and work, which will need to be carefully managed. Security considerations will always have to be paramount. Still, technology brings huge promise for the government’s ambitions to create safe, decent prisons, and ultimately to cut reoffending.
These changes must supplement, not replace, in-person support. Yet, with the possibility of months of prison lockdowns on the horizon, services cannot be frozen again. Ministers need to go into next month’s spending round with radical ideas in hand.
Aidan Shilson-Thomas is a senior researcher at Reform