On September 20, 2022, as a member of Revolving Doors’ Lived Experience Team I was due to give a talk at this year’s Perrie Lectures, however, due to the passing and funeral of my dear old former landlady, aka the queen, the lectures had to be postponed until sometime next year, by which time I will put together a new talk, so rather than waste it I thought I’d share it as a blog, and here we are.
“Think how much use of the internet and computers has changed for most of us over the last few years – staying in touch with family and friends; applying for a job, housing and a host of other services; managing our finances; obtaining information and education – laptops, tablets, PCs, smart phones, the cloud…It’s hard to think of an area of our lives that has not been touched by the new technologies or the way in which we operate not transformed.
Most prisoners are excluded from all this and are placed at the far end of the digital divide. Neither helped to obtain any of the benefits these new technologies bring nor supported and supervised to avoid its risks. We can’t go on with prisons in a pre-internet dark age: inefficient, wasteful, and leaving prisoners woefully unprepared for the real world they will face on release. I have not met one prison professional who does not think drastic change is needed.
A couple of years ago I visited the British military detention centre in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. The army had fixed it so the detainees held there could use Skype to communicate with their families in Kabul. If the army can do it for their enemies in a desert in Afghanistan, it’s hard to see why we can’t do it with low-risk prisoners here.
I hope we will all now get on with getting this part of prison policy to make its long overdue entrance into the 21st century.”
I’ve taken my opening words from an article the then Chief Inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, wrote in 2007. I am confident that Nick’s call to action for prisons to enter the 21st century is finally happening.
As you know, the covid pandemic had a huge negative impact on society, and an even bigger one on the prison estate.
However, I’m here to talk about a positive new culture which is growing in prison. A digital tech culture. One that is gaining momentum, especially with companies such as Coracle Online and the building and opening of prisons such as Five Wells, and the soon to be operating, Fosse Way.
Prisons built for the future, and prisons built with reducing reoffending in mind rather than the revolving door of crime and punishment.
Digital technology has many uses within prison; it was mostly used for education; less used for training and employment; much less for resettlement and hardly ever to help maintain family ties.
However, covid gave the prison system no choice but to find other ways of operating whilst also having to find new ways of providing purposeful activity and ways for people in prison to connect with their loved ones and maintain family ties. Storybook Dads, Shannon Trust and other similar organisations also had to find other ways of engaging and connecting with people in prison.
From where we were when I was released in 2017 to where we are now regarding digital tech in prisons, prison is unrecognisable. We’re even starting to see photo booths in visits, and what a fantastic initiative that is.
Digital technology allowed me to go back without going backwards as twice I have appeared, via Teams in the library of HMP Pentonville as a guest at their monthly celebration of success event. My most recent appearance…via Teams…in the Ville…from my kitchen, I know right, mind-blowing, I was a human book and shared a chapter of my life, titled, Prison, The OU and Me.
Unfortunately, when I began studying for my degree, whilst serving my final ever sentence, I only had textbooks and an A4 note-pad (purchased from canteen) so, although I was paying for my degree with a student loan I only had around 20% of what’s available to students studying at home.
I’m pleased to say that is no longer the case for students in prison who study with the OU, as they are now provided with digital pads. After my release, and when I did have the same access, I became so overwhelmed by what was available to me, I buried my head in the sand and stopped studying. Fortunately, I did eventually pluck up the nerve, I was feeling like such a failure, to speak to student services who were brilliant and so understanding. I deferred my degree for a year and in that time, I used the OU’s Open Learn site which enabled me to get used to studying online.
According to a Prisoners Education Trust report: Higher education supports individuals to increase their career prospects and earnings on release, and thereby reduces reoffending and so benefits the wider community. Ministry of Justice statistics from the Justice Data Lab show that people in prison who have undertaken distance learning to Further and Higher Education levels go on to reoffend less than a matched control group.
In an article from the Prisoners’ Education Trust in February of this year, HMP Pentonville received high praise for their Making Links project and the following shows what can be achieved.
“The Making Links project is a partnership between the University of Westminster and HMP Pentonville. Making Links was an idea developed in January 2016 by Dr Andreas Aresti and Dr Sacha Darke, Senior Lecturers in Criminology, with Jose Aguiar, prison educator at HMP Pentonville. The project creates a direct connection between prisons and universities through higher education.
The course runs twice a year. For 10 weeks twenty students (10 from the University, and ten from HMP Pentonville) have a deep, extended experience with a group of people, ostensibly unlike themselves, to study together. In 2018, the University accredited the course at level 3 for HMP Pentonville students and level 6 for the University of Westminster students.
This semester, the project was due to be cancelled because of the pandemic as universities moved to online delivery, and prisons are in lockdown. HMP Pentonville students would be denied the opportunity to study and take part in this invaluable higher education experience. Jose, Andreas, and Sacha came together to think about an innovative way of delivering the course.
Jose worked with HMP Pentonville governors and prison staff to develop an operational process to deliver the course on Zoom. The course started on October 21, 2020.
This semester seven HMP Pentonville students and, for the first time, two prison officers attend the course. Andreas and Sacha deliver the lectures, and eight recent graduates from the criminology degree at the University, who were on the project last year, join the weekly remote sessions.”
How much time is wasted in prison when you are stuck behind that door with either a stranger, your thoughts, or Eastenders and the like, as your cell companion?
If only I had access to digital technology when struggling with my thoughts, at night, alone, and lonely.
Digital technology can mean that the person in prison does not become so dependent and, therefore, institutionalised.
In McNeill and Weaver’s 2010 paper, Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management they stated that: “When experience of prison has institutionalised someone, weakening the person’s ability to cope on release, he or she needs to relearn how to take responsibility. Taking responsibility increases a sense of self-worth. Equally, it appears that encouraging self-reliance can motivate the person to take steps to prepare adequately for resettlement.”
And in 2008, Dr Helsper from the Oxford Internet Institute, wrote: “Technology is so tightly woven into the fabric of society today that Information, Communication and Technology deprivation can rightly be considered alongside, and strongly linked to, more traditional twentieth century social deprivations, such as low income, unemployment, poor education, ill health, and social isolation. To consider ICT deprivation as somehow less important underestimates the pace, depth, and scale of technological change, and overlooks the way that different disadvantages can combine to deepen exclusion.
From the negatives of covid, a new positive culture is appearing in the prison estate, a culture built on the back of digital technology, and long may it continue.