Give prisoners internet access to cut reoffending, says report

Prisoners should be given greater access to the internet to help them undertake education courses and stay in touch with family in order to cut re-offending rates, a think tank has said.

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), which was co-founded by former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, found that the majority of prisons in England and Wales do not even have the cabling or hardware required to support broadband, with just 18 out of 117 prisons possessing in-cell cabling.

In its report, “Digital Technology in Prisons” it claims that even prison staff do not typically have access to the internet.

Some lower-risk prisoners in lower category prisons may have highly restricted access via an internal system, principally for minimalist email services, “but this is the exception, not the rule”, CSJ says.

The problem is particularly acute among older prisoners serving longer sentences, many of whom have never held a digital device.

The estimated cost to the UK of prisoner reoffending is £18.1bn per year, but employment prospects remain bleak for released offenders.

68 per cent were unemployed in the four weeks before custody and 47 per cent have no qualifications at all. The report cites Ministry of Justice figures showing that only 4 per cent of women and 11 per cent of men are in work six weeks after their release.

“Prisoners are often among the most digitally excluded in our society, yet nearly all jobs – from supermarket assistants to construction workers – require digital literacy of at least a basic level,” the authors say.

“Ever more educational courses are only available online, reducing prisoners’ opportunities to learn.”

The Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) charity argues that digital “remains the essential ingredient that would revolutionise prison education. Without this, the digital divide will become a chasm, as prisoner learners miss out on developing digital literacy skills.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult for prisoners as many have been confined to their cells for up to 23.5 hours per day to avoid spread of the disease.

The government has taken some action in the last six months by introducing secure video calls in all public and private prisons and young offender institutions across England and Wales.

But the CSJ believes that a broader relaxation of the rules governing internet usage in prisons could help them to build a better life once their sentence has elapsed.

Andy Cook, chief executive of the CSJ, said: “The conditions forced on prisoners as a result of the lockdown have exposed a pre-existing problem. Prisons in England and Wales are rooted in a pre-digital age.

“If this is allowed to continue, our prisons will serve not as places of reform, but as drivers of exclusion, systematically denying the prison population access to education and training, and leaving them unable to work.

“The CSJ’s latest report argues the time has come to modernise our prison system, and to redress the exclusion of prisoners from the world outside the prison walls by installing controlled broadband facilities throughout the prison estate.”

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