In recent decades technological innovation has provided many opportunities for supporting prison management and the rehabilitation of people in prison. As documented in Global Prison Trends 2020, video visitation systems, remote court hearings and electronic file management systems are well established in some and becoming more common in some regions’ prisons, namely in Europe, North America and some parts of Asia and Oceania. The COVID-19 pandemic has required prison systems to rely on existing technologies and intrdouce new tools in response to the pandemic.
In this second expert blog of our series to explore trends documented in Global Prison Trends 2020, Benny Goedbloed – an expert on Technology for Prisons and Probation – writes about the different technologies employed by prisons as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Goedbloed also lays out recommendations to ensure such technologies remain not only effective but for the benefit of persons detained, both during and after the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected us all. Many countries went into lockdown and had to adapt to the unexpected situation that arose. If it was difficult for society, it was certainly a big challenge for the prisons and their population. Inventiveness in such a closed environment was and still is key to cope with the unprecedented problems that such a crisis brings.
Various technological solutions have been employed to help in protecting both staff and people detained who might come into contact with the coronavirus:
To keep the virus out
Due to the nature of correctional facilities with many people living and working in closed spaces, it is important in the first place to keep the virus outside of the prison walls. As part of these efforts, portable temperature measuring devices have been introduced in many countries for visitors, staff and detainees alike.
In China, there was the introduction of an infrared portal through which each person had to pass before entering the prison. Similar devices were also placed inside the facilities so that the temperature of the individuals could be measured quickly and efficiently.
Those who showed an elevated temperature (as a symptom of COVID-19) were denied access to the establishment or, in the case of internal control, were placed in quarantine or separated from the rest of the prison population.
In Hong Kong, prisons introduced robots to measure the temperature of persons detained, reducing contact between staff and detainees. They have also used air sterilizers, disinfection sprayers and high-temperature steam generators.
In many countries visits to detainees were completely restricted. Prisoners no longer had any physical contact with the outside world and solutions had to be found to alleviate the suffering this caused – as much as possible. For the first time, video visitation schemes have been introduced across prison systems and on a large scale. What used to be unthinkable was suddenly possible. All over the world different solutions were devised to make contact with the outside world possible for people in prison. Skype, Zoom, Webex, etc. entered the prison world. Belgium had already equipped its prisons with a telephone in each cell, but expanded this with the installation of several laptops for Webex video visits. In Italian prisons, TIM donated 1,600 smart phones to prisons because of the coronavirus. Earlier there had been widespread unrest and riots in Italian prisons due to the restrictions put in place.
Physical contact and social distancing
Social distancing in prisons is difficult, if not in many instances, impossible. To limit body searches we have seen the use of body scanners being introduced more and more to keep physical contact to a minimum. Especially in the United States, South America and Asia there has been “a boom” in the installation of such devices. On the other hand, in Europe, prisons have avoided the use of body scanners – which is probably linked to strict privacy regulations.
Technologies for studying, working, using the internet – as well as communicating as discussed – have been available for a while in a limited number of countries, as written about in Penal Reform International’s Global Prison Trends reports. However, during the global pandemic there has been a rise in the use of such technologies.
Technology also helps with knowledge sharing. With a digital management system via a mobile device, every person can control and order their meals, see menus, manage their medicines, etc. and all such requests and communications can be shared in real time with every staff member. Some systems also have the option of having prison officers fill in questionnaires about symptoms reported by persons they supervise. This of course leads to less physical contact, but also to fewer errors. Transparency is the key word here.
An increase in electronic monitoring (EM)
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many countries have extended the use of electronic monitoring for both convicted and those awaiting trial in an effort to reduce prison populations. This, of course, also means an increase in the number of persons to be monitored by authorities. Technological solutions facilitate the implementation of non-custodial measures, requiring no contact, such as automatic text messaging (for reminders as dates on which the person subject to EM must present himself or herself or to give advice on the pandemic) or smart phone apps that allow the person under electronic supervision to fulfil certain conditions. These can include, for instance, communicating with a probation officer, keeping an agenda, applying for a change in the date of appearance in court, etc.) are additional tools.
Artificial intelligence (AI) systems have also been introduced to use advanced facial recognition systems where prison staff can analyse groups and ensure that social distance protocols are followed. A startup had introduced an AI-based video analysis platform in several prisons in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh at the end of last year, for instance. It uses AI to scan CCTV images and alert authorities, but also to provide other insights. This video analysis engine enables a faster response in emergency situations such as this coronavirus outbreak. Although this product was launched to monitor illegal practices in prison cells using ‘intelligent monitoring of objects, crowds and perimeters’, it is just as relevant during this pandemic.
The same startup also launched a new thermal camera to complement security screening efforts, especially in prisons. Staqu’s new technology examines the heat signals via the cameras and sends out a warning when a prisoner with a body temperature of more than 37°C is detected up to a range of 100 metres. In addition, the automated screening has to be supplemented with a database containing relevant information. As people regularly enter and leave the premises – whether visitors or doctors – critical information about their travel and medical history needs to be recorded and kept up to date on a regular basis.
Blue Prism was introduced, which uses robotic process automation (RPA) to tackle COVID-19, also in prisons. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK has used its services to automate a central dashboard that it maintains to track COVID-19 positive cases in prisons. This in turn helps staff manage people detained affected by the virus.
A new (remote) way of working for prison and probation staff
The coronavirus pandemic has meant that many millions of people have been required to work from home (or telework) across nearly all sectors. Prisons and prison administrations were also confronted with this. All non-essential staff were encouraged to work from home (if possible), notably excluding frontline prison officers. As a lot of staff started working remotely at very short notice, it soon became clear that many prison and probation agencies’ IT systems and networks were not equipped for this.
Laptops had to be purchased at short notice, security put in place and networks extended. In a number of countries there were difficulties in providing such infrastructure. For instance, in France there was a shortage of laptops for probation officers which prevented them from carrying out their critical work with their clients. Nevertheless, most of the administrations and IT managers quickly dealt with these problems and now, after the most restrictive lockdown periods seen across Europe, working from home has become mainstream and many administrative prison or probation officers continue to work remotely.
Recommendations for implementation of technological tools by prison and probation systems
Although technological advances offer many tools in these difficult times, it is important that a number of principles are respected. Technology should be:
- Non-discriminatory: every person, any gender, imprisoned or not must have access to technology in whatever form it may present itself or cannot be deprived of it.
- Effective: the implementation of technology needs to tackle an existing problem and offer a clear and accepted solution for those using it.
- Voluntary: people cannot be obliged to be submitted to the technological solution
- Safe: the technological solution may not inflict harm
- Responsible: technology needs to be used in a responsible way and administrations or organisations have to take responsibility when there is a flaws.
Only if these conditions are met, can these solutions be used. This should be the motto for any technological tools employed.