Prison tech: keeping inmates and staff secure
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We associate prisons with high walls, bars and locked doors, but it takes more than just physical barriers to create a safe, secure environment for staff and inmates.
Can technology on its own stop a prisoner from reoffending? Probably not, but it can certainly help with rehabilitation. The next question is whether the justice system is willing and able to fund potential technology aids.
Prison budgets do not usually encompass novel technology, but in an ideal scenario, where should money be invested?
Mark Fairhurst, national chair of the POA (the professional trades union for prison, correctional and secure psychiatric workers),favours financing workshop spaces so every inmate is encouraged to work and learn a skill for when they are released. However, he notes, “there are very few prisons that have it for all inmates. So it’s down to investment, and at the moment we fall [short] and it’s quite sad.”
Vocational skills that inmates can use in the outside world are extremely beneficial for reducing crime. The example of the Netherlands, where the 2016 custodial programme ensured more than 1,000 workshop hours in five of the seven Dutch youth prisons, is the proof. Investment in prisoner welfare may explain why, according to the Numbeo worldwide crime index, the Netherlands is ranked as the 11th safest country in Europe, whereas the UK is one of the worst, coming 30th out of 39.
So what else can the UK do? Another way to reduce repetition of crime is to keep prisoners responsible for themselves and, to state the obvious, within the prison walls. “The biggest challenge of prisons is to find a good balance between security, rehabilitation and efficiency,” says corrections technology expert Steven Van De Steene.
He adds that security is much more than a physical concept: “The need to establish a balanced, humane and normalised environment – also known as dynamic security – where both staff and offenders can live together, is much more important, although it sometimes conflicts with the [presence of] physical security systems.”
Van De Steene says technology can be an excellent investment, and can allow inmates a certain degree of independence, more freedom and opportunity to make choices for themselves. A radio-frequency identification (RFID) system, where inmates can open their own cell doors (as recently introduced in the new Zaanstad Judicial Complex in The Netherlands) can be seen as a positive step towards rehabilitation.
However, Rob Minkes, chairman of the Dutch prison department’s work council, told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper that giving prisoners keys to their own cells runs the risk of criminal business and drugs trading. “This experiment is spreading across the Netherlands like an oil spill, but there still has not been a proper investigation of whether it has a positive effect on prisoners,” he added.
Even so, Dutch crime rates are lower than in most of Europe, and the country’s justice ministry defended the scheme, claiming it aims to encourage prisoners and give them more responsibility.
Van De Steene comments that when he was CIO for the Belgian Prison Service, he was surprised that offenders were seldom seen as people, they were a kind of ‘asset’ while analysing and designing IT solutions.
A Belgian-made flexible IT platform, PrisonCloud, designed for the secure distribution of content and services to inmates, helped Van De Steene establish a model “that has been used to include the offenders, and give them access to all kinds of services that are digitally delivered. In the last decade, different offender self-servicing systems have been introduced all over the world to enable prisoners to do things by themselves and avoid digital illiteracy.”
Offender self-servicing systems can be similar to kiosks, such as those used for checking in at airports, or checkouts used by customers to scan and pay at supermarkets. This kind of platform takes a lot of pressure off prison guards, who can then plan their time and resources more efficiently. Prisoners can use the self-service to arrange meetings with family, book healthcare appointments, access legal papers, movies, music, the prison shop and educational tools from a secure link in their cell, which is constantly monitored.
Schooling is seen as one of the most powerful weapons to change the world, and thankfully, prison education is finally getting more technological support. Van De Steene says many institutions have separate classrooms where some e-learning content has been made available. “Those systems are slowly moving into the cell and are opening connectivity towards teachers and schools (e.g. Open University) to facilitate interactive learning and the necessary communication and guidance.” As French poet Victor Hugo says, ‘he who opens a school door, closes a prison.’
Van De Steene adds that delivery of these kinds of service can be done in several ways and can help prisons achieve a more ‘normalised’ environment. Yet, there is also a huge risk related to this evolution, and this brings us to another aspect: efficiency and money. “If those technologies are only seen as a goal to reduce staff, it could lead to more isolation, and deprivation of normal human real-life contact,” he says.
Areas where technology is and could be used to increase inmate participation and enable access to the digital world are broad. Van De Steene says most offender self-servicing technologies come from installing inmate phone systems. “Communication with the outside world is crucial: traditional voice systems are extended with video and newer systems are moving from the wing into the cell of every inmate.”
‘If those technologies are only seen as a goal to reduce staff, it could lead to more isolation, and deprivation of normal human real-life contact.’
In January 2018, the French Ministry of Justice issued a call for telephones in every prison cell, following a successful trial in Montmédy prison. The facility trialled the installation of phones in each cell, and mobile phone seizures fell by 31 per cent in the first half of 2017, compared to the first six months of 2016.
George Jackson, CIO of the Irish Prison Service and a member of ICT Expert Group within EuroPris, says that having phones in cells means prisoners can make and sometimes receive calls to family and friends in privacy, rather than on busy landings. “This calms offenders by allowing them to talk to loved ones at a time that suits them and reduces the risk of violence on prison landings,” he adds.
As prisoners can have improved communications, so can the officers. Systems are moving from DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) towards internet protocol (IP)-based solutions, where a smartphone or tablet is used for prison officers to get real-time information in the field. Yet progress is slow, and implementing these sorts of approaches is rather difficult.
One risk in the improved availability of communications technology is an increase in illegal activity. Van De Steene says the most modern solutions are often seen in newly built prisons but, even for those, there is still a lot of resistance towards use of a wireless network, as it is seen as too easy for prisoners to misuse it for illegal activities.
The biggest security challenges for many prison environments are the illegal use of mobile phones and, more recently, the problem of drones being employed to smuggle in contraband.
Prisons are beginning to tackle this threat by installing phone and drone detection and blocking technologies. Detection is more common, as blocking radio frequencies is often difficult and illegal in many countries.
Les Nicolles prison in Guernsey recently became the world’s first to use a drone detector and deflector system, which creates a 2,000ft (600m) shield around and above the facility. Anti-drone jamming technology company Drone Defence provided the system, called SkyFence. Its president and CEO, Richard Gill, says that criminal drone use for delivery of contraband is on the increase across the whole prison estate. “Large nets covering windows and, in some parts of the world, eagles, have been used to tackle the illegal drone problem. None of these have been particularly effective to date.
“Large nets used to cover house blocks and outside spaces quickly get damaged, trap wildlife and litter, need constant maintenance to remain effective and fundamentally do not stop the drone from entering the prison’s airspace.”
SkyFence creates an electronic barrier at the prison’s perimeter, so drones are unable to fly into the facility’s airspace. It can be integrated into existing security systems and Gill says it is safe to use and it has no impact on the prison’s functions or communications structure. He adds that “by using highly directed fields of energy, SkyFence only has an effect on the airspace over the prison”.
The system is triggered by a drone sensor so prison officers can focus on their roles and not on drone incursions into their facility. “It can also be used to gather evidence of drone use around the prison to allow police to respond to illegal flights.”
Tracking prisoners with the precision of drone location would benefit inmates and officers. In Holland, Detention Concept Lelystad, dubbed ‘The Prison of The Future’, uses RFID bracelets to monitor prisoners. If tampered with, the bracelet sets off an alarm. Prison officers can also detect movement patterns over time. The facility claims to have automated emotion-recognition software to monitor conversation in real-time, so potential conflicts or prisoner plans are detected.
One company working on this technology is Affectiva, which is piloting it for autonomous cars and developing it in other markets. The company claims that its Emotion AI measures facial expressions of emotion using any optical sensor or just a standard webcam. According to Affectiva, its computer vision algorithms identify landmarks on the face, and classify facial expressions. Its products measure seven emotion metrics: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise, and provide 20 facial expression metrics. The company also has a speech-based product that analyses speech paralinguistics, tone, loudness, tempo and voice quality to distinguish speech, emotions and gender. This kind of technology may one day be present in many institutions.
Another way to track and monitor inmates, visitors and potential illegal activity is through biometrics. Bayometric, a global provider of biometric software solutions and services, says biometric technology can make a real difference in prison security and daily operations. Inmate and visitor management, inmate records, overseeing property, inmate movement and organising staff are some areas where biometrics within prison management systems can improve efficiency. For example, Bayometric suggests that when transferring prisoners, their fingerprints can be scanned from where they leave and then again when they reach their destination, or multiple locations in between, helping isolate an inmate if they haven’t arrived.
Fairhurst says biometrics is very rarely used in the prison system, “but it’s an area that can be developed and used to our advantage. From a security point of view, we would know where the prisoners are, whether there was an attempted escape, or a concern in discipline.” CCTV is the main way of monitoring inmates at present, but the quality is variable. However, biometric systems are expensive, so it’s unlikely that they will be used any time soon, he says.
Looking to the future of UK prisons, Fairhurst sees inclusive cell technology and enhanced CCTV coverage in most, provided there was adequate funding of course. Also, “phone and drone blockers [will be] essential to enhance security and control, and anything that can detect drugs going into jail in place at the gate.”
Gill at Drone Defence argues that as Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) builds new ‘super-prisons’ – like HMP Berwyn in North Wales, which can hold more than 2,100 prisoners – it would make sense to incorporate protective technology in the design and build phase. “An intrinsically drone-secure new prison would be far more cost-effective than retrofitting an establishment after a drone risk has been discovered,” he points out.
“There are a number of exciting technologies being looked at,” Jackson says, including “games to assist offenders in education, secure tablets or smart devices in preparing the offender for release, and body worn or in-cell sensors to detect changes in an offender’s health.”
Jackson also sees technology to detect voice pattern changes when inmates are on the phone to prevent self-harm or violence to other offenders or prison staff, as well as biometrics for prison officers and offenders.
An increase in technology spending within the judicial system would help prevent many prisoners from re-offending by giving them education, a sense of self-worth and rehabilitation, ultimately cutting the vicious circle that plagues many offenders.
However, as Jennifer Turner, lecturer in human geography and author of ‘The Prison Boundary: Between Society and Carceral Space’, warns: “There is no prevailing public appetite for spending on innovation, even if such advances might reduce the whole-life cost of an institution or contribute to the rehabilitative agenda of the prison service.”
The buck stops with who will finance it, and the success of a prison system with technology aids will require a change in public attitude. Taxpayers will need to be persuaded to understand that spending money on prisons and welfare of inmates can make streets and homes more secure. Yet it will be a long time before such understanding prevails.