The past year has seen rapid advances in the use of technological solutions in prisons and wider criminal justice systems globally.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries turned to digital and other tools as a means of reducing the risk of transmission in places of detention through human contact and easing the burden on prison and probation staff. Video visitation replacing in-person visits was initiated or expanded in prisons across the globe (see Contact with the outside world). Online access for training and education purposes in prisons accelerated as a result of restrictions imposed during the pandemic, and some prisons are training detainees for employment in the tech sector (see Rehabilitation and reintegration).
Increased reliance on tech solutions to mitigate the impacts of restrictive regimes has, however, deepened the digital divide. While well-resourced prison systems like Sweden were able to increase bandwidth and purchase new equipment as required, lack of infrastructure or resources in many countries meant people in prison could not benefit from technologies. In Kenya, probation officers were challenged by an insufficient number of laptops, inadequate internet access and difficulties to speak with clients, some of whom had no phone contact and others held in pre-trial detention centres had to queue to access teleconferencing.
Some prison systems looked to new technologies as a means to combat the spread of coronavirus. A number of US jails introduced UVC robots for disinfection in 2020. The devices emit high-intensity ultraviolet light – a technology typically used by hospitals that can destroy coronaviruses – and have been used to disinfect everything from cells to eating utensils. In China, infrared portals were introduced to check the temperature of each person before entering the prison, and similar devices were also placed inside the facilities. Robots to measure temperature were introduced in Hong Kong prisons, reducing contact between staff and detainees. They have also used air sterilizers, disinfection sprayers and high-temperature steam generators.
Remote hearings and videoconference courts have been used in countries like Albania, Peru, India, Myanmar, Morocco, Kenya and Nigeria, often for the first time. In Bangladesh, for example, virtual hearings were approved through a Supreme Court Ordinance which allowed bail applications to be made electronically, and technical support was provided by the UN Development Programme. In Tunisia, remote hearings were permitted by a 2020 ministerial decree amending the Code of Criminal Procedure and have been in use in some jurisdictions, supported by funding from the United States.
Where virtual courts existed prior to the pandemic, their use expanded significantly. In prisons in Ireland, where the first case by video-link was heard in 2009, its use almost doubled in 2020 from 30 to 58 courts, with more than twice the number of cases heard by video-link than the previous year. In Croatia, the use of video-link from prisons to courts and state attorneys almost tripled from January to July 2020 to 1,431 uses, compared to 573 in the same period in 2019.
The use of online hearings for criminal proceedings has raised concerns regarding due process, ability to understand procedure, and access to and ability to confidentially communicate with legal representation. Some judges have raised objections to Turkey’s e-hearing system, for example, cautioning that it may put some fair trial safeguards at risk. In countries where remote hearings were implemented as emergency workarounds without extensive testing or training, issues arose including arbitrary time limits on witness testimony to comply with free video conference software and poor connection quality. In Tunisia for example, the International Legal Foundation deployed two defence lawyers, one with the judge and one with the accused in custody, to facilitate lawyer-client contact while ensuring effective communication with the courtroom.
International bodies have called for remand hearings in particular to be held in person whenever possible. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for the physical presence of persons deprived of liberty in custody hearings in Brazil, warning that the use of video conferencing for custody hearings could negatively affect the detection of signs of torture and ill-treatment and could cause the persons deprived of liberty to feel intimidated or coerced.
Technological solutions have long been employed by prisons and probation services for security, with new examples in the past year. Hong Kong’s first smart prison is set to open in 2021, after more than 40 trials were conducted in other correctional facilities. Biometric technology, facial recognition and video analytic monitoring will be used to detect changes in behaviour and send alerts to staff, and drones and robotic guards will be introduced to frequently patrol the prison. Among new tools in development in the US is an Artificial Intelligence-enhanced GPS tracking device like an ankle bracelet that includes information on how risk differs across various spaces for an individual client. The device could intervene independently of any human action, for example encouraging the person to leave a location.
Automation and other technological advances can significantly ease the burden on prison staff, although the use of such technology needs to be balanced with the necessity for critical interaction between prison staff and people detained. An evaluation of digital technology in prisons in England and Wales in 2020 found a significant benefit to staff workloads with the introduction of self-service kiosks and in-cell telephony and laptops. Allowing detainees to self-manage routine tasks saved an average 91 hours of staff time per prison per week– the equivalent of two prison officers working a full week – and reduced administrative follow-up exercises by 82 per cent. A prison in Australia has tested an autonomous vehicle to patrol the perimeter, which performed the work of two prison officers who check the perimeter three times a day. The vehicle is equipped with high-definition cameras, night vision, a collision avoidance system, incident alert lighting and a two-way intercom, and will be integrated with airborne drones.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.