People in prison are often barred from technology, leaving them without the basic tools they need to survive in the outside world. The government has pledged to expand digital in prisons, but is it moving fast enough?
For people who have access to the digital world in prison, it can be a lifeline. Illustration: Eleanor Bannister
David Kendall is waiting for a train when he answers my call on a rainy weekday morning. “Off anywhere nice?” I ask. He chuckles: “Just on my way to prison.” This phone call, with the sound of wind and trains rattling past and echoing out my speaker phone, is another world from the one he is about to enter. In prison, people are barred from technology and communication in the digital space.
“In the majority of prisons it’s still paper, word of mouth and hope,” Kendall says. He has spent more than two decades working on creative projects in prisons and is the founder of Penned Up, a literary festival behind bars. “Most prisons have very little. They have phones, yes, but nothing else.”
Around one in 10 people in prisons have routine access to an internet connection or a computer, according to estimates from Victoria Knight, an associate professor at De Montfort University who has researched mass communication in prisons for 20 years.
The majority of prisons lack cabling or hardware to support broadband, with old and decaying infrastructure and thick walls meaning even prison staff have little access to the internet. Many older prisoners serving long sentences have never held a digital device.
“If we marginalise and deliberately force people into digital poverty, there are consequences,” Knight says. “It creates further social harm and has extra costs. Prisons actively deprive people and that does them no favours for resettlement or even coping while they are in there.”
Around a quarter of people leaving prison reoffend and are placed back in custody, recent government data shows. This cuts into the public purse, with each person costing around £47,000 for every year they spend behind bars.
“I’ve come across men who have been in there for so long they had never operated a mobile phone,” Knight adds. “Those basic skills of operating technology just aren’t there. And then they are expected to flourish in the outside world.”
The pandemic highlighted deep flaws in the system. People were kept in their cells for almost 24 hours a day, with family visits forbidden. There were dramatically increased levels of depression and anxiety, and charity UserVoice found one in three prisoners were suffering from severe symptoms of anxiety.
“If I don’t see my family I will lose them,” one prisoner told the Centre for Social Justice at the time. “If I lose them, what have I got left?” A toddler who hadn’t seen his dad for 11 weeks said to his grandparent: ‘Daddy has gone now.’
So the pandemic forced policymakers to act. “It drew a line under it,” Kendall says. “It went from people thinking we have to control all phones, to realising that people need to be able to speak to their loved ones.
“We’re banging them up for 23 to 24 hours a day. They need in-cell phones. So phones came in. The trickle of new technology has not become a flood but it’s widened to a stream. It moved things along. Prisons need this technology. The only argument is how far and how much.”
The government published a prisons strategy white paper just over a year ago, with plans to scale up technology to create a more efficient working environment and to empower people in prison through safe and secure access to in-cell technology. But this is a 10-year plan, and who knows where technology will be by then?
“There have been some developments and changes which are positive,” Nina Champion, the director of the Criminal Justice Alliance, says. “But it’s piecemeal. It’s in a few prisons here and there. There are different pilots on different platforms. There’s a total lack of consistency or any overarching strategy, and people are being left behind.”
There are new prisons being built as part of the government’s prison expansion programme: a £4billion investment to create 20,000 new modern and innovative prison spaces. But Champion believes the government should improve the prisons we already have, and create a minimum standard for technology so there’s consistency across the country.
“There’s a postcode lottery as to who has access to courses and support,” Champion says. “Once you’ve got those minimum standards in place, I’d love to see governors be creative locally and think about what they can do to meet the needs of that specific population.”
Champion worked with a man who had come out of prison and no one had taught him how to use email. He was told to go to a local library and someone would help him. But when he got there, no one had the time for him and they didn’t understand why he didn’t know what an email was or how it was used.
“He was embarrassed to say he’d been in prison,” Champion says. “He was really down, which was sad to see from someone who was positive about this as a fresh start. He followed the instructions but he’d fallen at the first hurdle. People were asking him for his email address to apply for jobs. And he couldn’t do that. It really impacted his self-esteem and confidence.”
For people who have received access to technology in prisons, it has been a lifeline. Kendall connected The Big Issue to two long-term prisoners who have had monitored access to technology, and they say it is a “real game-changer” and has “made life more efficient”.
It has helped their mental health and allowed them to take back some control in their lives, with digital access meaning they can choose their meals, book healthcare appointments, watch TED Talks and communicate with people in the outside world.
Kendall edited a man’s handbook for prisoners, a survival guide of sorts which he had written while inside HMP Garth in Lancashire, and he was shocked to discover they could communicate via email. “It was a perfectly legit system: ‘Email a prisoner.’ I would email, an officer would read it, print it off and take it to him. It felt like a bit of the real world had sneaked into prison.”
Some prisoners use apps to apply for jobs and courses to make them more employable. There are real success stories too: Code4000 is Europe’s first coding workshop in prisons, delivering coding training to people behind bars.
One of its beneficiaries is Franky, who also did an A Level in maths and a degree at the Open University while inside Humber Prison. He wrote all his essays by hand and posted them to his tutor, with his grandmother sending him books to help him study. His graduation celebration was some food on the prison wing.
“The prison system is really outdated and hasn’t kept up with modern teaching, making it a real challenge to get a good education,” he says. But Franky was given a rare opportunity to do the coding course with Code4000. “It was set up like a proper office with computers, desks and chairs. The atmosphere was different, and the environment helped me learn what working is really like.”
When he came out of prison, he got a job as a software engineer for a high street bank. “Being offered a job was a massive thing,” he says. “It blew my mind. It meant everything to me. I moved 100 miles to a new city to take up the opportunity. If I didn’t have that job, I’d still be living at home, probably still getting into trouble. This job has opened new doors for me now and for my future career.”
But Franky’s experience is rare. “I had a friend who came out of prison and didn’t know anything about technology,” he says. “He was absolutely lost. I gave him a hand as he had no idea. Setting people up with emails and giving them the skills they need in the modern world would really help bridge that gap, otherwise it’s all alien to them and sets them up to fail.”
There are plenty of examples across the world where prisons are more modern. Finland is trialling a “smart prisons” project. In some wards, people have access to laptops and tablets in their cells where they can read the news, learn new skills and even take a course in artificial intelligence. The use of the internet is restricted, of course, to certain websites – but prisoners have access to rehabilitative, social support and health care services.
“It’s very much their attitude in Finland to create a normal environment,” Knight adds. “Singapore is another wonderful example. They are using digital for the people there to record how they’re feeling, what their fears are, see how they’re progressing, and they have access to a shared record. That’s really important when prison creates hopelessness.”
People might say there are risks: how can you trust someone who has committed crime with access to the internet? In Finland’s smart prisons, it is all rigorously checked, permission has to be granted and any suspicious use of devices is monitored. And how can someone be expected to thrive in the outside world if they are not given the tools they need to survive it?
“We know it can be done in a secure and controlled way,” Champion says. “It is possible and other countries are doing it. We’re lagging behind and we need to come into the 21st century.”
As we come to the end of our phone call, and I hear Kendall’s train rattle to a halt, I ask him what he would like for the future of prisons. “Less of them,” he laughs. “But I would also like to see [people in prison] having more opportunities to learn what they would like to learn, not just what anyone thinks they should learn.
“I realise it’s slightly counterintuitive but people in prison need more freedom to make their own decisions. People are in there because they made a wrong decision, and they need to learn how to make the right ones. We need to let them practise that.”
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