The past year has seen rapid advances in the use of technological solutions in prisons globally. In the first of our new blog series expanding on trends identified in Global Prison Trends 2021, Pia Puolakka, Project Manager of Finland’s Smart Prison Project, details the process and benefits of digitalisation of prisons and in-cell technology, and how any risks to human rights can be managed.
The Smart Prison Project was started in October 2018 with the purpose to introduce a new prison concept that uses digital services for rehabilitation, education, and reintegration. The objectives were to install cell devices, with a smart system, in to the new Hämeenlinna women’s prison and develop the use of digital services in all Criminal Sanctions Agency’s (CSA) units.
Technology and Benefits
Hämeenlinna Smart Prison was completed on 1 November 2020. In March 2021, each of the 100 single cells were equipped with a cell terminal (a laptop) installed with a smart system provided by Gerdes. The prison population can then use the system for messages, requests, and video calls to contact the staff. They can also contact prison health care services and other authorities and co-operation partners, such as NGOs, and make video calls to communicate with relatives and people close to them. Furthermore, the cell terminal has restricted access to the Internet, via a whitelist. The list of accessible sites includes Moodle, through which the prison population can study, online shopping site, and other selected websites that support rehabilitation and management of daily affairs. It also offers the use of basic office tools and the ability to read and store material and e-books. Prisoners also have access to the website, Elements of AI, maintained by the University of Helsinki and Reaktor Education where they can learn about artificial intelligence.
In-cell terminals. Photo credit: Hämeenlinna prison, Criminal Sanctions Agency, Finland
Both staff and those serving sentences at Hämeenlinna have had ICT skills training in order to be able to use the smart system. All staff are supposed to be able to give digital guidance to those detained. This year, Hämeenlinna’s prison population were given an opportunity to learn basic digital skills by participating in a course called Digital Leap, which was organised by Kalliola Settlement Activities (NGO). CSA are collecting ongoing feedback from users via the smart system to evaluate and develop the system further. Feedback from the staff is also valuable considering the smart system is supposed to make their work flows easier and faster since prisoners can send their requests electronically and take care of other routine tasks independently too. Prison staff can also monitor several video calls from their own laptop. Preliminary feedback from prisoners reveals that the system is easy to use and flexible to development. We also want to involve both the prison population and the staff in developing the system even further.
What are the benefits for prison management?
Whilst the Smart Prison Project has been piloted only in one prison, the project has accelerated the general development of digitalisation in all Finland’s prisons and probation offices. In all units there are workstations for people in prison or on probation to have limited access to the internet, Skype calls and Office tools. The whitelist includes several hundred websites for rehabilitative, social support and health care services. The need for these services was accelerated during the outbreak of COVID-19, which provided CSA with a challenge to develop these services even more. During the past two years, we have provided many new services including online rehabilitative programmes and possibilities to contact officials working in social, housing and financial services. For example, CSA facilitated an online video-call channel with the Finnish Social Insurance Institution so that individuals could speak with them daily during the week and without having to book an appointment. Online courses can be done independently or with staff’s assistance. The system allows for many new services besides the ones we traditionally have had in prisons. Importantly, it has provided access to all the same civil services as citizens outside of prison, in line with the normality principle.
it has provided access to all the same civil services as citizens outside of prison, in line with the normality principle
CSA have various partners involved in the Smart Prison Project. For example, the Finnish Foundation for Supporting Ex-offenders (Krits) provides online video consultation to the units. Moreover, the Virtual Reality Model is being piloted in three prisons, as well as an online therapy with A-Clinic for substance abuse rehabilitation. Laurea University of Applied Sciences has also started a research project on the experiences of digitalisation and the change in prison culture in Hämeenlinna prison. Interviews of those serving sentences at Hämeenlinna prison can be done via video calls, but the study will also be conducted by following and observing the daily life of both individuals serving a sentence and staff. The DigiIn research project is led by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. CSA’s preliminary research about the experiences of developing a smart prison have been published on the International Corrections and Prisons Association’s (ICPA) website.
Risks and challenges
The major concern for implementation of technology or resistance to it is often related to the security questions in prisons. Before taking the system into use, a security audit of the system and laptops was conducted by an independent party. CSA’s internal security, legality control and the technical project managers of both CSA’s partner Legal Register Center and the vendor Gerdes did an extensive analysis and work to secure data protection and security in the system. Prison staff and especially the admin users were instructed to monitor suspicious use of devices. Permission to use the whole whitelisted Internet websites must be requested from the prison director and all outside video calls with relatives are monitored. Prisoners also received instruction on privacy and security issues.
Some might be worried that cell terminals would mean less time out of cells and less human interaction. So far, we haven’t noticed this kind of phenomena. Risks can be mitigated by providing enough meaningful live activities in prisons and motivating everybody to participate in the daily activities, which is already part of the Finnish prison concept. Since it is inevitable that prisoners have to spend some time in their cells, cell terminals provide something meaningful to do even during the “cell time”.
there are various ethical questions regarding use of AI including biased data-sets leading to wrong or inaccurate decisions
The costs of implementation have to be taken into account. The more you want to develop the system and broaden it to several prison units, the more you have to be ready to invest in it. The current prison infrastructure in Finland is quite varied: we have very old units and on the other hand the new prison projects take into account implementing modern technology in cells and other prison premises. We might face some limitations with our old units, but in general the developmental trend is towards more digital and more open prisons.
As stated, CSA hopes this project will test how digitalisation can support rehabilitation and modern prison culture. In the future, CSA will consider extending this model to other closed prisons and, therefore, digitalising prison culture even further. The next steps will include implementing an e-mail system and Artificial Intelligence (AI) solution for the new Offender Management System. RISE AI is a system that uses Artificial Intelligence (Machine Learning) to assist sentence planning and service orienting of offenders (see Puolakka, 2020 and Puolakka & Van De Steene, 2021, listed below). However, there are various ethical questions regarding use of AI including biased data-sets leading to wrong or inaccurate decisions, fairness, transparency, privacy, and GDPR questions. There will be a need for ethical guidance and new policies or probably even new legislations. CSA looks forward to a broader Data and Digitalisation Strategy in 2022 as part of the organizational change in CSA. An overview of the project can be seen on Business Insider.
Allen, D. T., & Abadi, M. (2020, August 11). At prisons in Finland, inmates are learning AI and taking online tech courses as a bridge to life on the outside. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/finland-prisons-technology-ai-online-classes-2020-8?r=US&IR=T
Criminal Sanctions Agency. (2020, August 5). German Gerdes selected as the smart prison system supplier. https://www.rikosseuraamus.fi/en/index/topical/pressreleasesandnews/Pressreleasesandnews2020/germangerdesselectedassmartprisonsystemsupplier.html
Lindström, B., & Puolakka, P. (2020). Smart Prison: the preliminary development process of digital self-services in Finnish prisons. https://icpa.org/smart-prison-the-preliminary-development-process-of-digital-self-services-in-finnish-prisons/
Puolakka, P. (2020). RISE AI: Reducing the Risk of Recidivism with AI. Aalto Executive Education: Diploma in Artificial Intelligence. Unpublished.
Puolakka, P., & Van De Steene, S. (2021). Artificial Intelligence in Prisons in 2030. An exploration on the future of Artificial Intelligence in Prisons. Advancing Corrections Journal, Edition # 11, ICPA. https://icpa.org/17417-2/
The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare: DigiIn – Towards socially inclusive digital society. https://digiin.fi/en/
University of Helsinki & Reaktor Education. Elements of AI. https://www.elementsofai.com/
Varghese, S. (2019, October 23). In Finland, prisoners are being taught crucial AI skills. The Nordic state plans to prepare prisoners for the digital job market. Wired UK. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/finland-ai-prisons
 ‘RISE’ is short for Rikosseuraamuslaitos, which is the name of the Finnish Criminal Sanctions Agency.
Main photo credit: Hämeenlinna prison, Criminal Sanctions Agency, Finland