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24 August 2016

Charities say computers can transform prisoner rehabilitation

Secure, controlled access to computers and the internet can transform education, family contact and resettlement in prisons and reduce reoffending on release, according to a new joint report launched today by the Prison Reform Trust and Prisoners Education Trust.

Carefully assessed prisoners should have access to interactive, updated and secure web content and develop skills to use emails and video calls, the report suggests. This would enable them to stay in touch with families and obtain services and support, such as housing, education and employment, to help them desist from crime.


Through the Gateway: How Computers Can Transform Rehabilitation examines the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in prisons and its potential as a tool for rehabilitation. It is based on a survey of prisons sent to all prison governors and directors in England and Wales supported by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), a focus group of prisoners’ families, prison visits and expert roundtables.


In the Foreword to the report, Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, writes:


“We can’t go on with prisons in a pre-internet dark age: inefficient, wasteful and leaving prisoners woefully unprepared for the real world they will face on release. I have not met one prison professional who does not think drastic change is needed.”


Nearly three quarters (74%) of the prison governors and managers who responded to the survey agreed that prisoners should have secure and controlled access to the internet. 94% agreed ICT skills were necessary for everyday living. 67% said that prisoners should be able to set up bank accounts while in prison using ICT.


The report says greater and more effective use of ICT in prisons would improve opportunities for education, training, employment, resettlement and strengthen family ties – all factors which have been shown to reduce reoffending on release.


Nearly half (47%) of adults are reconvicted within one year of release.  For those serving sentences of less than 12 months and young people aged 18-20 this increases to 58%. In 2011-12, just 27% of prisoners entered employment on release from prison.


Prisons surveyed were using ICT mostly for education ICT was less often used for training and employment, much less for resettlement and hardly at all to help maintain relationships with families.


The main barriers for prisons using ICT to improve rehabilitation were concerns about security, financial constraints, the lack of a co-ordinated strategy, licensing and insufficient central resources.


Concerns about security are understandable, and the report describes steps that can be taken to prevent misuse of ICT. Given the high cost to the tax payer and victims of reoffending, security needs to be managed in a proportionate way to enable ICT to become an effective tool for rehabilitation.


The Chief Inspector of Prisons added:


“Of course, there are security issues that need to be managed but the technology itself allows every key stroke to be monitored and access can be risk-assessed. Perhaps there are some who will say computers and the internet are luxuries prisoners should do without. There was probably some grumbling when they first put telephones on the wings too and if we want prisons to rehabilitate those they hold, we have to give them the tools to do so.”


According to the report, opportunities for face-to-face interaction with officers, teachers, peers, families, and others remain crucial for desistance from crime. ICT should be used as a means of expanding and complementing current provision; not to reduce social interaction and staff costs.


The report calls for a national strategy to ensure that prisons, education, contracted service providers, and the voluntary sector co-ordinate the ways ICT is used for rehabilitation and resettlement.


Commenting, Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:


“Controlled use of ICT is a sensible way to bring prisons and prisoners into the 21st century. Computers can transform rehabilitation but, in the closed, bleak world of prisons, they should complement, never substitute for, good quality face-to-face staffing and direct contact with families. Closing the digital divide between people in prison and the community is vital for effective rehabilitation and resettlement.”


Rod Clark, Chief Executive, Prisoners Education Trust, said:


“These days most people could not function without computers or the internet and if we can’t work, find a job or study without the use of ICT, how can we expect people in prison to do so? Technology can provide us with many solutions to help rehabilitate people in a safe, secure way and if we do not explore them, then we risk sending more people back into society without the skills or the motivation to live a life free from crime.”


Meeting in Parliament


The main findings and recommendations of the report were discussed at a joint meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Penal Affairs Group (APPPAG) and the All Party Parliamentary Internet and Communications Technology Forum (PICTFOR) in the House of Commons on Tuesday 22 October. Speakers included Rod Clark, Chief Executive, Prisoners Education Trust; Lord Harris of Haringey, Treasure of PICTFOR; and a woman prisoner who has experience of the uses and current limitations of ICT in prison.


The report’s key recommendations are:


Practical help with resettlement. Access to information, utilities, government departments, and support is increasingly designed for internet use. 94% of staff who responded to the prison survey agreed ICT skills were necessary for everyday living. 67% said that prisoners should be able to set up bank accounts while in prison via ICT.


ICT for education and training. ICT has the potential to improve individuality, flexibility and continuity of learning in prison and after release. There are clear opportunities for ICT to engage more prisoners in learning, as well as to expand the range of subjects and levels of education available through e-learning, remote tutorials and virtual academies. ICT in prisons is not yet being used to its full potential to exploit these opportunities and is therefore not providing a level-playing field with learners in the community.


ICT for learning support. ICT can be used to provide better support for prisoners with learning disabilities, low literacy levels and English as a Foreign Language to access education and cope with prison.


Promoting family ties. Very few prisoners are able to make use of ICT for improving their relationships with their families. Use of email, in-cell telephony, video-calling (like Skype), virtual contact / video conferencing, in addition to face-to-face visits, would help to maintain family ties and provide opportunities for family learning and relationship counselling.


ICT to support prisoners’ families. Options to book visits and send money into prisoners online would help prisoners’ families. Prisons can be poor at communicating with families and this could be improved by using ICT. Prison visitors centres could provide opportunities for access to ICT for prisoners’ families, who can also be digitally excluded.


Internet access. Nearly three quarters (74%) of respondents to the prison survey agreed that prisoners should have access to the internet. There remains a need for prisoners to use interactive, updated and secure web content to be able to carry out educational research, as well as to take responsibility for planning their resettlement.


Secure access. Access to interactive, updated and secure web content depends on three aspects:

  • controls that protect the system from misuse
  • the quality, extent and nature of the content
  • the accessibility of the ICT system within the prison environment and regime


These criteria are more fully defined in the main report (see Logistics and Security). Throughout the report, we use the phrase ‘interactive, updated and secure’ as a short-hand for the complete set of these criteria.


Category D prisoners. All prisons should enable the majority of prisoners to access interactive, updated and secure web resources for the purposes of rehabilitation. In addition, selected low risk category D prisoners, who are eligible for release on temporary licence (ROTL) and can therefore access the internet in the community, should have enhanced access to online resources within the prison to prepare for release and become accustomed to life in the community.


Wing-based terminals. A few prisons have touch screen computer terminals on the wings, which enable prisoners to conduct a range of functions electronically. These can improve efficiency by reducing the need for paper-based applications and enhance the prisoner’s ability to take responsibility.


Secure relay messaging. Secure relay messaging – a controlled email-type system – is mainly used for making job applications; it has wider potential to support education and family ties, which are currently under-used.


Through the gate. A website, which enables former prisoners to access their saved work after release, could be developed further to help bridge the gap between custody and the community.