Smarter, better, stronger: The evolving role of tech in corrections

Could technology help reduce reoffending and improve people’s chances of reintegration? 

Peter Severin, President of the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA), believes so. He sat down with us to discuss the evolving role of tech in the corrections sector.

How is technology currently being applied in the corrections ecosystem?

Technology plays an increasingly sophisticated role in corrections. It started to be more extensively used in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it has really gone from strength to strength in its development and also in adding to community safety. From the days when technology was first introduced to support prison staff, today we’re using quite sophisticated technologies, such as artificial intelligence.

There are some great examples already happening in various parts of the world where there’s been an increased focus on technology being used in the context of changing the way administrative functions operate. It takes away the time-consuming interactions between staff and prisoners, from filling in forms to organising requests.

The use of technology in corrections has a big role, and in my view increasingly so.

Was technology was one of the major drivers to try and combat the traditionally manual processes within a prison’s ecosystem?

Very much so. The most obvious example is the use of cameras back in the late ’80s, early ’90s. What that did was enable the prisons to do away with towers where humans were standing hour after hour watching often very empty spaces and not really being productive. Before cameras, that was the only way you could actually ensure the integrity of the perimeter around a prison. Cameras were now doing that for them, and having a centralised control room that monitored those cameras was a great advantage right across the developed world.

That was one very early way of using technology in a security context. It continued through the use of electronic locking and controlling of doors, rather than relying entirely on keys. It’s then continued with the use of biometric-identification technology for people entering prisons.

Today, that technology has evolved even further where biometrics not only control movements, but they actually allow a whole range of other functions to be monitored and facilitated and supported through a normal operational day in a prison facility.

Has there been any change in the way technology has been deployed to support some of the operational changes made during the COVID-19 era?

Very much so. If anything, COVID-19 has resulted in governments becoming much more aware of the effect that advanced technology can have in a prison environment, and that’s always positive.

Of course, if your government is sympathetic to an initiative that you want to promote, the likelihood of it being funded is so much greater. But also just from a technological perspective, the industry has really risen to the occasion and offered some fantastic solutions to compensate, for example, for the fact that visits had to be cancelled in-person. Contact had to be wound right back and, to some extent, still to this very day.

Using smart technology like tablets allows the service to be brought to the prisoner, rather than having people come in and go out of a prison, and therefore increase the risk of transmission. COVID-19 has, with all the negatives and all its impact had a very positive effect on the development and use of technology in prisons right around the globe.

With your position at the ICPA and the amount of members you have across the globe, you get exposure to all sorts of new initiatives and approaches and ways of doing and thinking about things. Are there any standouts that come to mind about how different regions tackle some of the problems in corrections?

One is the use of tablet technology and increased in-cell technology. We’re talking about the technology that prisoners can actually use while they are locked up. And prisoners are locked up, particularly maximum-security prisoners, for long periods of time in their cells. Rather than maybe watching television, there’s not much more for them to actually do.

Using a tablet-type technological solution in a cell allows prisoners to actually do educational programs. They also have some recreational opportunities, as well as the ability to communicate with their approved loved ones or friends in a way that they were previously never able to. Women offenders can say goodnight to their children when they go to bed in the evenings. Previously, that was unheard of. You’d get locked away at three or four o’clock in the afternoon and that was the end of it. Now you can actually facilitate those very, very important communications.

You touched on something interesting there: the ability for a prisoner to communicate with their families to say goodnight. In terms of the traditional old-school thinking, if you have been found guilty of something then you should do the time and pay the price for the mistake you made. But a lot of that narrative is changing now, and it’s about the proportionate sentence that you serve in line with the crime committed. In terms of improving the chances of reintegration and reducing recidivism rates, how important is it that some of those communication channels are made available to prisoners?

I think it’s actually quite critical. There are two things we should never lose sight of. Prisons are not there to punish; prisons in themselves are the punishment. It’s not about doing things that are very different to what a society expects, but about doing the things that will actually make a difference.

The clear evidence supports the fact that good interactions and communication with those you’re going to be spending time with once you get out of prison is absolutely critical. Maintaining families is one part of this very critical path that we are trying to facilitate through the use of technology. So it’s not just allowing someone to have a chat. It’s there to actually contribute to reducing reoffending by building strong relationships with those people, so when they get out of jail they can actually rely on them and go back into an environment that is not completely alien.

This is very much controlled, of course. There are very strong safeguards built-in and everything is recorded and able to be monitored after the event – or even live, if necessary. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it plays a really important role in a person’s rehabilitation. So where previously, maybe 10 years ago, we were focusing on the therapy of the cognitive-behavioural approaches, and we have never discarded those as they are still very relevant. But what we’re now putting a lot of effort into is creating some positiveness in people’s minds that then motivates them to not reoffend, and technology plays a role in facilitating that.

Want more insight into the world of security, identity access management, biometrics and more? Get your fix with the IDentity Today podcast, hosted by Daltrey CEO Blair Crawford. Listen via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.