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October 2013 — Can Computers In Prison Transform Rehabilitation?

Minutes of the All-Party Penal Affairs Parliamentary Group, supported by the Parliamentary Internet and Communications Technology Forum (PICTFOR) held on 22 October 2013

Can computers in prison transform rehabilitation?  

Rod Clark, Chief Executive, Prisoners Education Trust
Emma, a prisoner who has experience of ICT in prison
Lord Harris of Haringey, Treasurer of PICTFOR

Paul Goggins MP, in the chair
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe
Paul Maynard MP
Lord Ponsonby
Lord Woolf

Paul Goggins MP welcomed everyone to the meeting, and introduced himself as joint chair of the group. He explained to newcomers how the meeting went about its business, and went on to mention a few practical matters. The next meeting would take place on Tuesday 5th November, and the speaker would be the Chief Coroner.  Secondly, Claire Perry MP, one of the Vice Chairs of the group, had been promoted in the recent reshuffle, and would therefore have to resign as an officer.  Discussions would take place as to her replacement. Finally, there had been discussions with Fabian Hamilton MP, who chaired the Prison Health All Party Group, about how the two groups could work together more closely.

He then introduced the three speakers for the evening’s meeting: Rod Clark, Chief Executive of the Prisoners Education Trust (PET), Emma, a serving prisoner, and Lord Harris, Treasurer of PICTFOR.

Rod Clark began by thanking the meeting for the kind invitation. He continued: ‘Prisoners Education Trust is an organisation which looks to promote education in prison, and to promote improvements in that education. We also provide a lot of the grants for distance learning courses, Open University courses and so on, that prisoners do while they are in custody.

In that work it becomes very clear just how important ICT can be for education in a prison context. Because of that we have teamed up with the Prison Reform Trust, with the generous support of the Hadley Trust, to do a report on the use of ICT in prisons and to look at the potential for making greater use of it in order to achieve rehabilitation outcomes.  That report is being published next Monday but I am here today to give you a bit of a sense of some of the issues that it raises, and to give us an opportunity to debate some of those.

The starting point in thinking about the use of ICT in prisons has got to be just how ubiquitous it is in modern life, whether that is in ordering train tickets, applying for a job or finding somewhere to live. Increasingly, organisations including government ones, are directing their customers through e-channels. So on top of all the other difficulties that prisoners face in returning to the community and looking to embark on a constructive life free of crime, they are at a massive disadvantage if they are not equipped to engage in life in that way. We did a survey of prison staff, as part of the research, and 74% of them said that it was important for prisoners to be able to have secure controlled access to the internet in order for them to be able to manage some of those things.

What we are not suggesting is that there should be a free-for-all, and that any ICT should be available throughout custody. There are very serious and genuine security risks that have to be addressed: the risks of somebody intimidating witnesses or planning escapes or whatever, through unfettered access. But one of the beauties of ICT is just how effective it can be in controlling what people are able to do with it. Those risks can be managed, and they need to be set against the greater hidden risk that lurks within custody, which is that people leave prison ill-equipped to have a life outside which is free from crime. The NAO, as you know, has estimated that the cost of that is up to £13bn per annum. That is the risk that needs to be managed, and the report that we have produced says that ICT can play a hugely important part in helping to manage that risk.

ICT can help in all sorts of ways, not only in producing more effective support for measures to promote rehabilitation but also in doing it more efficiently. If you look simply at education, which is the field we at PET are most interested in, the quality of the interactive support you can get through an IT based platform is streets ahead of what is available through other channels.  It can provide really effective and active support for people with learning difficulties – and that is a significant proportion of the prison population – and it can ease and help in managing contact with tutors if you are studying for a degree, and take work away from prison staff, in having to handle assessments and communication and so on.

If you look at an area like resettlement, it is really important that prisoners begin to take some control over their own futures and the way in which they are planning for their release. The vast majority of the services they need to access are based on the web.  If you are looking to find housing, it’s the web you use to do it: similarly if you want to apply for a job, or to apply for a bank account, so that you can prepare yourself for when you are released. ICT can also be really helpful in maintaining links between a prisoner and their family, and that is something we know is really important in helping to prepare them to reintegrate back into the community.  We recognise that, so prisoners are given phones with pin numbers so they can ring family members and have conversations relatively easily with them.  If we accept that, why can’t we enable them to have email contact with specified designated email addresses for family members, which let’s face it are capable of much closer virtual electronic supervision than a telephone call?  Moving on from there, would it be possible to imagine much more use of Skype type technology so that you could have that more personal interaction with a family, when the distance is often a massive problem for maintaining family links?

There is a huge amount of work going on to build secure IT solutions within prisons, and we very much applaud and welcome that. Some of the people who have been working on that are in the audience here today.  The main initiative goes under the name of the virtual campus, which is really in essence an intranet. We are working with the Open University to see about extending it into something that is closer to allowing a normal internet-type access to controlled sites. I think that is exactly the way we should be going.  But although the theory of what’s available in prisons is improving all the time, the reality is that the actual access to things like the virtual campus is not nearly as great as we would like.  We did a survey over the last few months, with Inside Time, and the single largest thing that learners said they wanted was better access to ICT, and access to the internet for learning materials. As for the virtual campus, there were good messages coming through about it, once you got on to it, but access to it was really difficult.  The investment has been made. A lot of money has gone into this.  But what is really important is to get a real movement, which I hope parliamentarians will support, to be able to get the maximum use of those opportunities.

There is one final thing, which I think it is really important to say.  Although ICT can be hugely powerful in supporting rehabilitation, it is not in itself a substitute for the personal social interaction that prisoners also need to develop in order to have a successful life through the gate. So, yes, there are efficiencies which you can achieve through ICT, but it is not an excuse for locking somebody up for 24 hours with a laptop and saying ‘Well that’s fine then. That is preparing you for life on the out’.

I think I have talked quite enough. So I will introduce Emma, one of our alumnae of whom we are immensely proud. We have funded her to do a number of courses in prison and she is currently continuing her studies on ROTL, release on temporary license.  She will talk far more eloquently than I ever could about ICT in prison.’

Paul Goggins MP thanked Rod Clark and welcomed Emma.  She began by saying that she had prepared a speech, which she would read. She continued:  ‘By giving prisoners the opportunity to access computers it should better their chances of employment and in turn reduce reoffending.  That is, I believe, the end result that everyone should be working towards. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that if it wasn’t for me being given access to courses during my sentence I would not be leaving prison in 6 weeks with a full time paid job where I use a computer throughout the whole day.

About 2 years ago the IT facilities within all prison establishments were reduced and the restrictions in turn meant that you were unable to work beyond a level 2 qualification.  I was lucky enough to have been working on a level 3 module and just managed to complete this before these changes were finalised.  What I couldn’t understand was why I was the only prisoner having completed a module at level 3 at that prison.
When I enquired as to why this was, the answer was:

“We tend not to think that people will stick to it as you have to think for yourself at level 3 and most people don’t have that sort of mind set. We therefore tell them that it’s not available.”

I surely was not the only person in the prison that was capable of completing it, so when I was asked by fellow prisoners how I was able to study at level 3, I told them the truth, that it is available and they can do it but that it is hard work and it’s nothing like the other levels. Some of them started the same module I had done and when I was available in that classroom I helped them where I could.  Some of the tutors themselves were not qualified to teach this course which I think was another reason why they put people off.   After the restrictions were put in place those that had started the module were then unable to complete it. All that hard work that they had put in, they felt was for nothing as the qualification at the end was what they needed to help them gain employment upon their release.

Alongside my ICT courses I was also studying an Open University degree in Business and Accounting. The first 2 modules I studied were available in hard copy form so I was able to study these in my cell.  I applied for another module which I was accepted onto but when it was time to start, the material had not arrived.  After a phone call to the OU I was told that this module was online only, I was at that point too late to apply for another module and had to waste months until another module started.

At the second prison I went to, I was told about a ‘virtual campus’ that enabled those who wanted to study, to have on-line access to courses.  I was there for just under 6 months and this wasn’t available throughout that time.

Where I currently reside they have a virtual campus room with computers all there waiting to be used. Unfortunately it wasn’t connected to the education department which would have made logistical sense.  Instead it was put on a wing that to get onto, you have to shout through a locked gate, down a corridor to hopefully get the attention of an officer. I asked about when this would be available, the information I received wasn’t very comforting: “The license has expired.”   It hadn’t even been used yet and they weren’t going to pay for it again.  Not only that, they hadn’t trained anyone to use it.  What a waste of money:  a facility sitting there collecting dust where there were people wanting to use it that couldn’t.

When I started being allowed out on home leave and to work in the community I enquired as to how I could get online access to the Open University.  They had not had anyone have this arranged before from where I am so when the Open University contacted the prison to get someone with authorisation to agree that I was not a risk to anyone also using the facility the request seemed to fall on deaf ears.

If it weren’t for a chance meeting at an event not too dissimilar to this I would not have my online access today.  It did still take a further 6 months almost to get, and all these delays have put me behind so much so that right now I’m running 2 concurrent modules that are both online based, but I am still very grateful that this was arranged.  When I informed a fellow OU student that I had organised this she asked if I could help her to get hers.  I contacted the person at the prison that had signed mine off and asked if there was some kind of precedent that could be set for other students. Well let’s just say I’m still awaiting a response on that.

I am definitely not complaining that people have put faith in me and enabled me to have access to the facilities that I needed, eventually, but why is that for everyone else that I think should also have it, they aren’t given that same chance?  I know that I come across as someone that is very determined, but there are so many others that have the same ability as me, if not more so, but they have not been given the same opportunities.

So I ask that better IT facilities are offered within prison establishments, and that the restrictions put in place 2 years ago are re-evaluated so that those wanting to study at level 3 are able to do so.  The ‘virtual campus’, that I am yet to see working anywhere, needs to be pushed so that those who are studying with the OU and want to have full access to modules can have it.  It is so difficult to gain employment without a criminal record but to have that negative mark against your name means that you have to work twice as hard as anyone else to prove that you are the right person for the job.   So why restrict those who want to better themselves and let’s instead offer them that chance to show employers that they’ve turned their lives around and have done everything they can to have a new beginning upon their release.’

Paul Goggins MP thanked Emma very much for her presentation and then introduced Lord Harris, of PICTFOR.
Lord Harris explained that he also chaired the independent advisory panel on deaths in custody, so was deemed to be the best qualified amongst PICTFOR officers to speak on this topic. The remit of the expert panel was to advise the various ministries responsible for depriving people of their liberty, the Department of Health, the Home Office, and the Ministry of Justice, on what could and should be done about reducing deaths in custody.

He continued: ‘What I found interesting about this report, and the two presentations we have heard, is that it addresses, or potentially addresses, some of the central concerns that my panel have about the prison regime, and  the risks that that can bring in terms of the potential for committing or contemplating suicide.  There has been huge progress in the prison estate in terms of reducing the numbers of deaths in custody, and of those committing suicide. One concern that remains is the extent to which the prison regime is necessarily going to foster a sense of isolation. One of the attractive things about this report, and the vision which is contained in it, is the way in which it can start to address and diminish that sense of isolation.

We often have arguments as to whether the remit of our panel covers those who die immediately following custody. Again, this report addresses some of those concerns, in that it looks at how you equip individuals to cope with life outside custody. Obviously ICT can facilitate Open University courses. But you go into schools now, and children from the most basic to the highest levels require an IT basis, and benefit from IT support. So the wider availability of that for all levels of ability and all levels of aspiration within the prison service could be extremely important.

Then there is the other argument about preparing for release, understanding what is out there, understanding what you may be entitled to, what the options are, and so on.  The ability to be able to research some of that must be unique.  There is also the question alluded to in the first set of remarks about coping with the modern world. We all get used to the way in which things change and that so much is now on-line. We don’t really notice these changes because they are gradual, but if you have been away from that for a significant period then this change is amazing and dramatic. The closest I came to being aware of that was when I visited my local sexual health clinic a couple of weeks ago. I should emphasise that I was doing this as part of a parliamentary visit to the facility. But you go into that clinic, and yes there is a reception desk, and somebody you could talk to, but most of the users of that clinic prefer to log in on-line, because it is much more confidential.   If you had never confronted a touch screen, or being asked questions on-line, this could be daunting.  We have to prepare people for the way life has changed.  It is changing so rapidly that even quite short periods of imprisonment are going to have that effect.

The final point that I thought was very powerful in the report is the importance of maintaining family and/or friendship links outside, and the ability of computer access to make that easier.  This is particularly important for prisoners who have got children, and the ability to speak and communicate on Skype, where it might be impossible, impractical or inappropriate for the children to be brought in on visits, would reduce isolation, and reduce the risks as far as those prisoners are concerned.

I would like to make one final and perhaps off the wall point. A few months ago I met Howard Sapers, who is the Correctional Investigator for Prisons in Canada. He was quite enthused by some research he had recently come across which was looking at the early detection of people with depressive diseases caused by a sense of isolation.  I was intrigued by this, although it sounded as though it was using IT which was beyond anything used in prisons in this country, and I read the article he sent me. It was about some research done on long-term astronauts, who were obviously isolated in a different way, but what it identified was that people may be prepared to communicate their worries and concerns through an IT programme.  This would not be conveyed to people around them, or even those who might be making decisions, for example about future missions, but the programme could flag up a concern, detected through on-line behaviour, that an individual was becoming depressed, or over-isolated.  I’m not suggesting that there is a simple answer here, or that a programme developed for astronauts is automatically appropriate in a prison setting, but what I am saying is that if we accepted the principle of the wide spread availability of IT access within prisons, it would have all the benefits we have identified,  and we might well find all sorts of other spin-offs – ways of providing support which would be anonymous, and which would avoid the risks of people taking their lives in prison’.

Paul Goggins MP thanked Lord Harris warmly for his contribution and opened the floor for discussion.