Tools for transforming lives: using technology to reduce reoffending

This report assesses how prisons could use technology to promote desistance and improve resettlement outcomes. It considers why technology is not yet being used to full effect, and suggests some areas for policymakers to consider.

Technology is fundamental to modern life – now, more than ever – yet government research shows that prisoners are among the most digitally excluded in society. Too many people leave prison ill-prepared to navigate a digital world, and, perhaps more strikingly, prisons cannot harness the enormous potential for technology to be used to promote desistance from offending.

This digital neglect not only creates barriers for rehabilitation, it also makes prisons far less resilient to the coronavirus, as without digital contingencies, services in prisons have been paralysed. The Government is right to put prisons under tight lockdown to stop the virus spreading, but it was not inevitable that rehabilitation would be locked down too.

A more balanced approach to technology in prisons must be taken. Pockets of innovation across the prison estate and abroad demonstrate that secure technology can be used by prisoners to improve outcomes in custody, plan for resettlement, and enable continuous support into the community.

Ideas for reform:

1: The Ministry of Justice should consult 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. This will ensure that services meet the needs of users. Feedback loops should be built into the process to monitor impact and enable improvements.

2: To improve prisoners’ access to technology, the Ministry of Justice should develop a plan for adapting the prison estate to enable in-cell connectivity and to provide in-cell devices to the entire prison estate, starting with prisons that could already support them. Funding to enable this should be provided through the upcoming Spending Review.

3: To help prisoners to transition back into the community and navigate support services, the Ministry of Justice should review it’s discharge policy and consider providing prisoners who do not own a phone with a low-cost, pre-paid mobile phone with a data allowance.

4: To ensure that prisoners can have controlled access to the internet for legitimate purposes, the Ministry of Justice should review and update the prison service rules governing internet access, and accompanying guidance, to ensure that these are comprehensive enough to allow for proportionate judgements on risk.

5: The Ministry of Justice should consider 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. 

6: The Ministry of Justice should consult 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, and ensure that the Ministry does not duplicate efforts to design and implement digital services.

This paper was kindly sponsored by BT Group.