Digitising UK prisons could reduce reoffending, DMU expert advises Ministry of Justice

Research shows that increasing the use of technology in UK prisons could reduce reoffending and help rehabilitate prisoners upon their release.

Dr Victoria Knight, Senior Research Fellow for the Community and Criminal Justice Division at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU), has contributed to a list of recommendations for how best to digitise prisons, which has been shared with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

Dr Knight was called upon by Reform – a Government charity dedicated to public service reform – to share her expertise and provide evidence for why technology should be used more widely in prisons across the country.

“There are many debates around the use of technology in prison, looking at the challenges versus the benefits,” she explained. “Evidence from my own and others’ research suggests that technology can be used to help prisoners thrive, improve their skills and rehabilitate.

“People need digital literacy and it would be foolish to deny prisoners an opportunity to gain or maintain their digital skills as these will help them to resettle upon their release.”

Based on Dr Knight and other leading academics’ research findings, Reform has listed six recommendations for the MoJ to consider. These include:

  • Consulting with all groups of service users, including prisoners, prison staff of all levels, digital service providers, and rehabilitative service providers, during the design and implementation of digital services.
  • Developing a plan for adapting the entire prison estate to enable in-cell connectivity and to provide in-cell devices, starting with prisons that could already support them.
  • Reviewing and updating the prison service rules governing internet access and accompanying guidance, so that prisoners can have controlled access to the internet for legitimate purposes.
  • Reviewing its discharge policy and considering providing prisoners who do not own a phone with a low-cost, pre-paid mobile phone with a data allowance, to help them transition back into the community and navigate support services.
  • Considering what training and induction process will be required for prisoners and prison staff at all levels as digital technologies are introduced more widely, to ensure good uptake and effective use.
  • Consulting with their counterparts in other countries, academics, and businesses in the sector on the introduction of prisoner-facing digital services, to review existing evidence, learn from their experiences and best practice.

Dr Knight, who has been conducting research into the digitisation of prisons for the last eight years, said prisons are decades behind the rest of the public sector in their use of digital technology.

“Public services are typically quite slow at making and implementing change – they can be quite restrained in that respect, especially when you compare to how quickly things move in the corporate world,” she said.

Dr Knight also shared insight into how other countries incorporate digital services into their prisons and how the UK can learn from them.

“Belgium takes a blanket approach and gives all prisoners access to technology, while in Australia there has been some work done to show how e-learning in prisons can improve their life once they return to civilisation,” she explained.

“Currently, here in the UK, our prisons are dependent on prisoner behaviour and access to any technology, including things like a television in their cell or making a phone call, is framed as a privilege.

“But the remit in prisoners is to rehabilitate, not just punish. The point of being in prison is to give offenders an opportunity to desist, address their behaviour and change.

“Technology can help do those things.”

The substantial review by Reform has been sent to the MoJ and Dr Knight hopes it will lead to change sooner rather than later.

“I think the next step is to design solutions that meet the needs of everyone who will use the technology in prisons,” she continued. “It’s not just the prisoners, it’s their friends and family, their legal representation, the staff who work in the prisons, digital service providers, and rehabilitative service providers.

“There are a lot of people to consult with and we need to make sure the digital solutions we come up with are meeting the needs of all of the identified end-users.”

Dr Knight said that discussions around the cost of implementing digital services and where the money comes from are “absolutely crucial”, while making technology secure is of utmost importance too.

“Findings from one of my previous studies showed that the majority of taxpayers do not mind their money being spent on providing digital solutions in prisons as long as it leads to a positive outcome – in other words not reoffending and not costing more money in the future,” she said.

“When it comes to security, it goes without saying that any solutions provided to prisoners would need to be very secure and safe, with robust regulations and monitoring in place.”

Dr Knight and her peers say that digital services in prison would work in the same way as schools and universities in that they would strictly govern what users can access so prisoners would only ever be able to access an approved and regulated online environment, with much of their access being hosted on internal, intranet services.

“Digital technology is part of our everyday lives now, so I think it undoubtedly has a role to play in providing pathways out of prison,” added Dr Knight.

“We have all had a little taste of being a prisoner during the lockdowns we’ve faced this year and it has highlighted how important social contact through technology can be and how much it can impact people’s lives.”

For more information or to read the full report by Reform, click here.

Dr Knight is also chairing an online event on Wednesday 9 December, focusing on the report and exploring the research behind the recommendations. For details or to sign up for the free event click here.