The Prisoner Learning Alliance has been campaigning for greater access to digital technology since we began. When faced with potential staff shortages and longer lock-up, the case for greater access to in-cell technology comes into its own.
HMIP reports consistently show that many prisoners spend too much time locked in their cells, often lack opportunities to learn skills or engage in education beyond GCSE-level English and Maths, and feel that they cannot communicate with their families enough to maintain a good connection.
Additional pressures on staff adds greater weight to PLA’s argument for greater access to digital technology in prisons, and in particular the case for in-cell technology.
How might prisoners’ education be affected by staff shortages?
Shortages in prison staff can mean less out-of-cell time for prisoners, restricting their access to the library and virtual campus. Fewer teachers means classes being cancelled, leaving prisoners locked in their cells for longer and without a focus or a meaningful way to spend time.
Staff shortages in other departments may also result in less access to phones or postal services, limiting prisoners’ contact with family, friends and the outside world.
A shortage of prison staff – and no access to prisons for outside organisations – will leave a void for many prisoners
Other activities which rely on outside organisations coming into prisons volunteers will also be reduced if there are fewer members of staff. Activities such as art classes, book groups, choirs and drama clubs rely on prison officers to collect prisoners from their cells and escort them to the classes, as well as to collect and escort group facilitators. A shortage of prison staff – and no access to prisons for outside organisations – will leave a void for many prisoners, both in terms of time and sense of meaning and purpose.
Whilst universities and schools are able to hold exams online and launch virtual seminars, prisons are not as equipped to adapt to the challenging circumstances of less face-to-face interaction.
How could digital technology make a difference?
The possibility of prisoners having to spend more time alone and in their cells shines a powerful light on the benefits digital technology could bring to prisons and prisoners.
With no in-cell technology, if prisoners are stuck in their cells because of staff shortages, they will have little to keep them occupied
Allowing in-cell technology would mean prisoners having devices in their cells which would have access to an intranet, or restricted white listed (pre-selected and approved) websites. This would provide prisoners with an alternative way to engage in learning and other aspects of prison life (see below), minimising the disruption which arises from having fewer officers and teachers.
Currently, with no in-cell technology, if prisoners are stuck in their cells because of staff shortages, they will have little to keep them occupied. The frustration which can arise from being deprived of going to work, education or family visits could be mitigated to some extent if prisoners had a way to use their time meaningfully and to help maintain some aspects of continuity in terms of their education and contact with family and teachers.
When there is disruption which means people cannot leave their cells, in-cell technology would enable them to continue to work towards their goals
If people in prison had the virtual campus in their cells, electronic reading material and pre-selected educational applications or restricted internet access they could use their time more constructively and continue to work towards qualifications or assessments. This would improve wellbeing and mental health among prisoners, whilst also contributing to their rehabilitation and helping them to prepare for their release.
It would also mean that if classes are cancelled, they could be held remotely or prisoners could watch other, pre-selected online lectures or seminars. When there is disruption which means people cannot leave their cells, this would enable them to continue to work towards their goals.
Beyond education: the wider benefits of in-cell technology
In cell technology could also have wider effects on rehabilitation and resettlement which extend beyond education.
If prisoners can’t get out of their cells to speak with their families or make phone calls, or send or receive messages about visits, prisoners’ contact with their families is greatly diminished.
Additionally, unable to visit kiosks (electronic self-service machines located in communal areas of prison wings, which are used in many prisons to place food orders, arrange social and legal visits and carry out other day-to-day tasks) prisons would have less control over these aspects of their lives.
In-cell technology can assist in the process of creating a sense of purpose, providing an element of continuity, and creating a greater chance of rehabilitation in preparation for release
In-cell technology could provide a remote platform which would address both of these issues without putting further strains on prison staff, by allowing prisoners to submit applications or place canteen orders, and to make phone-calls to their families without being reliant on leaving their cells.
Providing in-cell technology would not mean unlimited internet access in cells. It is also not a fix-all solution and cannot fully mitigate the impact of being locked up for long periods. It can, however, help to lessen some of the disruption to daily life caused by staff shortages by increasing prisoners’ access to information, education and the outside world. It can assist in the process of creating a sense of purpose, providing an element of continuity, and creating a greater chance of rehabilitation in preparation for release.
Read more about PLA’s work on digital technology in prisons
The Digital Divide: Lessons from prisons abroad
Our briefing looks at the use of digital technology in prisons from Spain to Australia, of in-cell tablets to virtual reality headsets. We hope that England and Wales can learn from some of these lessons from abroad.