Long Read: Technology and Public Sector Prisons

By | 2019-03-29T11:24:45+00:00 January 7th, 2019|0 Comments

This week we bring you a long read, an essay written by one of our fantastic Learning Together students, currently resident in prison, who prefers to remain anonymous. 

‘Does the reluctance to introduce new forms of technology to improve prisoner interaction with the outside world protect society or place it at risk?’

As a life sentence prisoner, who has spent over thirteen years in the English prison system, my experience of recent technological advances in society has been limited; but limited only to an extent, because some of those technologies have nevertheless found their way into prisons. These include mobile phones, Smart phones, Wi-Fi enabled devices, USB sticks, SD cards, readers, and various other technologies. Such items are banned in prisons and, in my opinion, for good reason; their misuse can lead to chaos, violence and even fatalities. They also have a detrimental effect on rehabilitation and pose a risk to the public. Yet although prison authorities have been engaged in an ongoing battle to find and confiscate unauthorised technologies (15,000 mobile phones and SIM cards were confiscated in English and Welsh prisons in 2017, equivalent to one for every six prisoners), their influx and proliferation in some prisons has been so relentless that some governors appear to have given up hope of complete eradication and have settled on managing the situation. This suggests that, despite the best efforts of governors and staff, physical security measures alone cannot win the battle.

In order to regain some control over unauthorised technology, I believe part of the solution lies in investing in more technology, albeit in secure and authorised forms. However, before meaningful change can happen, it will first require a fundamental shift in the mind-set of those with strategic oversight of public-sector prisons. In attempting to illustrate these points and encourage people to think more creatively about how technology might be used in prisons and its potential benefits and outcomes, I propose to share some thoughts in answer to the following five questions:

  1. Why are our prisons full of phones and other unauthorised technologies?
  2. What are the costs and consequences of unauthorised technology?
  3. What are the possible solutions?
  4. What might be the outcome of fewer phones and other unauthorised technologies?
  5. What might be the outcome of new and improved technology?
  • Conclusion
  1. Why are our prisons full of phones and other unauthorised technologies?

Compared to the revolution in IT that has taken place in society, when it comes to technological upgrades in public-sector prisons (which hold about 75% of the prison population), very little has changed. The same landline phone-boxes, which have been in place for the previous twenty years, have not even changed appearance, let alone seen a reduction in call charges. At 11p per minute, they are probably the costliest in the UK (Calls to mobile phones cost approximately 69p per minute). With the weekly wage for prisoners averaging at £8 per week, there are genuine limits to how far this can go when using prison facilities. Video conference technology is used in some prisons but solely for official procedures. An intranet system (called Virtual Campus) exists for distance learning and resettlement purposes but is greatly limited in content and relevance; and while someone can email a prisoner using an authorized email service (which is still received by the prisoner on paper printouts), there is no provision to email back in the vast majority of prisons.

Ever aware of the technological advances in society and the lower prices that accompany it, prisoners have relentlessly campaigned over the years, via different forums (i.e. prisoner councils, rep meetings), to prison governors for access to better and cheaper communication services (for domestic and legal purposes), facilities for viewing and ordering approved items, and internet access for research and educational purposes, etc. These are not just personal desires; they are officially encouraged because of the rehabilitative effects that result from, for example, strong family ties and engaging in education. Yet the pace of progress has been painstakingly slow or even in retreat in some respects. Prison service officials are wary of technology and have become extremely reluctant to offer any more than that which already exists.

And there are valid reasons for this refusal to provide better resources. Prison ministers and governors are fearful that any technology which allows prisoners access to the internet or direct contact with the public will be somehow compromised or circumvented, resulting in a security breach or, much worse, a serious crime. What could be worse than introducing a new piece of technology and it being used by a prisoner to contact a victim or commit an offence, an incident that could attract a mocking headline from a newspaper like the Daily Mail? So, the disparity between the rapid advancement of technology in society and its highly moderated existence in prisons is based largely on reluctance from HMPPS and the MoJ, reluctance that itself is grounded in fear, fear that something might go wrong. After all, the primary function of a prison is to protect the public.

However, although limiting the application of technology in prisons seems like a perfectly sensible approach, I believe that this approach is in fact a central part of the problem underpinning many of the issues effecting today’s prison system, hindering progress on many fronts. Further still, that it created some of those issues in the first place. For example, as ICT advanced in society it inevitably surpassed the comparative forms of communication in prisons; during this period, however, prison facilities were left to effectively degrade into outdated and overpriced services (reaching a point where they could no longer interrelate with modern forms of communication in society). The ensuing imbalance that developed between internal and external technology thus had a counterproductive outcome: it created a gap in the market, rationalised the motive for filling it and helped advance the situation we have today. (For the purpose of this piece, I will define and label the motives of those who mostly or solely seek to use technology for legal purposes (even though they may break prison rules to achieve this) as ‘legitimate.’)

On the other hand, there will always be those in prisons with their own reasons for wanting to use unauthorised technology, irrespective of the motives defined above. These are drug dealers and organised criminals (and, to a lesser extent, drug users and other criminals). Mobile phones and other technologies have become indispensable to those who continue criminal activity in prison because they help make their operations (smuggling and trading illegal substances) easier and, more importantly, harder to detect. For this reason, drug dealers are now the main players in many of the tech-smuggling operations taking place in prisons across the nation. That said, although determined individuals and criminals groups will often seek to exploit weaknesses in systems, the flaws that exist in our prisons (those that enable them to smuggle and trade colossal amounts of drugs) have been handed to them on a plate. (For those who seek to obtain technology to commit further offences, including drug users (although both groups may have some legitimate aims) I will define and label their motives as ‘illegitimate.’) 

Although the above groups are collectively responsible for sustaining the influx and propagation of unauthorised technology in prisons, their motives for doing so are varied and not necessarily based on bad intentions. Nevertheless, despite the security measures in place to prevent contraband entering prisons, whether it is smuggled through visits or receptions, thrown over walls or fences, flown in by drones, brought in by staff, or transferred between establishments by prisoners, the main reasons they are full of phones and other technologies are overwhelmingly because of the objectives of both groups described above, made possible by poorly conceived policies on prison technology.

Additional considerations:

As previously defined, there are two separate groups of prisoners who sustain the influx and proliferation of unauthorised technology in the prison system, those with mostly or solely legitimate motives and those with mostly or solely illegitimatemotives. An important detail worthy of note, however, is that neither group exists in isolation. To varying degrees, individuals from both groups rely on each other and interact on a daily basis, forming tech-networks in prisons which are perceptible to prisoners but highly obscure to prison authorities. This observation and distinction between prisoners’ motives is important because their ultimate separation could be one of the keys to a safer and more manageable prison population.

Another important consideration (although less central to this piece) is the distinctions between the prisoners who sit within the group of those with motives defined as illegitimate. Within this group there are two main categories: those who sell drugs for profit and those who purchase them for personal use. The inter-dependency that exists between these two sub-groups is incredibly strong because of the ‘wealth and power’ that can attained from the sale of drugs and the ‘control and influence’ of addiction itself. That is why, where technology is concerned, drug users are vital components for drug dealers in their smuggling and concealment strategies. Their inter-dependency is also why it remains a very difficult affiliation to break. So although it is a relationship which is not the primary focus of this piece, if the link between the legitimate and illegitimate groups can be broken, it would have a detrimental effect on the relationship between drug suppliers and drug users within the illegitimate group. Nevertheless, when talking about the link between the two main groups, the focus will largely be on the inter-dependency that has developed between those with legitimatemotives and those in the illegitimate group minus the drug users.

Before moving on to possible solutions, it might be worth considering an example of how someone with legitimate aims might come to be dependent on criminal links (and vice versa) and subsequently drawn into a network that is not only damaging for the world in which they live, but potentially detrimental to the needs they are seeking to address in the first place. Such insights are necessary if we are to examine how parallel relationships can be deterred. A common example of how inter-dependency can occur is when the standard pressures of family life (maintaining a relationship and/or remaining in contact with your children so you can nurture them as they grow) arise. These pressures, constrained by the limited funds to spend on antiquated prison pay-phones and lacking any other authorized means, are often enough to tempt someone to seek out alternative solutions to fulfil their needs. And so, in order to achieve this, the easiest solution, because of availability and convenience, is to request a call from an associate or criminal entity, or maybe even acquire a mobile phone for personal use.

Like drug addiction, on experiencing the benefits, the individual with initial legitimateaims may start to become reliant and perhaps unwittingly begin to support the motives of a lender with criminal intent, possibly by agreeing to ‘look after’ (hide) the phone to obtain a free but regular call with family. In seeking to alleviate the pressures of family life or service some other legitimate need, the individual inadvertently buys into a subversive network, becomes more protective and secretive about it (including criminal networks or individuals) and, as a result, protects it from disruption by already stretched security measures. As the means to satisfy the need is now provided by a fellow prisoner and, evidently, not the state, the psychology of ‘Us and Them’ starts to play a more influential role. The criminal- or tech-network then has a more sympathetic or reliant component that ensures its longevity. So whether the purpose is to make a phone call to mum, send a photograph to your children or view the clothing range on a Hugo Boss website, these interactions occur on a daily basis, countless times across the prison system, sustaining thousands of tech-networks that have far reaching consequences.

2. What are the costs and consequences of unauthorised technology?

Pre-mobile phones, all phone calls and contacts with the outside world were routinely monitored and recorded by prison phone systems, enabling a range of checks and balances to be applied. This not only allowed prison authorities to safeguard the public or deter the arrangement of contraband entering the system, it provided a means to capture anti-social or risk-related behaviour and, if necessary, apply additional safety measures or arrange interventions in the form of offending behaviour work. The arrival of mobile phones and other technologies in prisons have now rendered almost pointless one of the most important apparatus for protecting the public and ensuring the safety of staff and residents.

With mobile phones and other technologies at the disposal of almost every prisoner in the system, it is now possible to make unlimited, unmonitored calls or carry out illegal activities with near impunity. This includes small, medium and large-scale drug dealing, drug and phone smuggling, financial transactions, witness intimidation, victim harassment, downloading and/or viewing illegal or extremist material, and bullying and intimidation of fellow prisoners, to name just a few. Mobile phones have also made it possible to continue running, from a prison cell, criminal operations in the community, or (as has previously happened) order ‘hits’ on members of the public. Many deaths have also occurred in prisons as a result of ‘Spice’, the psychoactive substance that has flooded the prison system. The above is merely the tip of the iceberg, but it does highlight how unauthorised technology has not only become a communication, security-void option for virtually the entire population of the prison system, it has also enabled criminals, criminal networks and even extremism to grow in strength as a result. And it all comes down to the simple fact that prisoners, not the state, now own the better forms of communication with the outside world.

There are also wider costs to consider. While prisons are full of unauthorised technology, the chaos and resulting distractions are such that programmes for rehabilitating prisoners have a diminished affect. The violence and drugs, as well as the mind-altering material that is available on the internet (whether political, ideological, religious, etc.), are either psychologically damaging or absorb headspace to such an extent that less room is available for treatment and personal development. Without a solution, while prisoners retain access to unauthorised technology, to the extent that they currently do, the battle against the revolving door of crime will never achieve the outcomes that society deserves.

3. What are the possible solutions?

At present, current methods for detecting and blocking the signals of mobile phones are not working as intended. Phone signal-blocking equipment is unusable where houses circle the perimeter of a prison (a common layout) and contacting a network provider to disconnect the number of a mobile phone which ‘might’ belong to a prisoner can only be attempted if the number is known (which is pointless, in any case, given the available number of SIM cards in the prison system). Relying on intelligence from the general prison population is limited because, as explored, it is counterproductive towards their legitimate aims. New technologies for detection and prevention will certainly come along but the arms race will continue because equivalent advances in technology will be used to evade or defeat the latest detection and prevention methods. One manufacturer of mobile phones has even developed a tiny phone called ‘Beat the Boss,’ a clever reference to a chair that has been designed to detect phones hidden inside someone’s body when they sit on it. The phone is thought to render the chairs useless.

Therefore, rather than relying on an arms race that might never be won, in order to retake control of the situation and provide a safe and decent environment where prison service objectives can be met, HMPPS and the MoJ need to alter their approach to the application of technology. The only response with any prospect of improving outcomes is to provide a range of up-to-date and adequate technologies that satisfy the legitimate needs of mainstream prisoners across England & Wales. With the right technologies, the vast majority of prisoners with legitimate needs (and some of those with less legitimate objectives) could be drawn away from unauthorised tech. This is not about making life more comfortable for prisoners, it is about striking a more pragmatic balance between prisons and society so that the public can be protected against the less-friendly forces of the prison system while allowing prison authorities to regain an element of control so that prisoners can be rehabilitated and safely reintroduced to society at the end of their sentence.

Some of the areas in prison communications and internal/external interaction that need addressing are listed below, along with some ideas and implications. The suggested list, however, is not exhaustive, since the possibilities of technology and innovation are limitless and beyond the technical knowledge of the author. Besides, I propose that it is for government (in collaboration with prisoner focus groups) to work with industries (particularly around communications and internet access) to develop technological solutions, solutions that are safe, relevant and meet the needs of prisoners.

  • In-cell phones, with affordable rates. If rewiring is too costly, as has previously been suggested, create a wireless system and link it to its own monitoring and recording facility, or provide prisoners with their own secure hand-held sets (for use in-cell).
  • An Intranet System, into which the full content of a vetted website can be uploaded. This would provide access to a sites full content while restricting free access to the rest of the internet.
  • An App or Software that can be accessed via a desktop computer or laptop and which enables restricted access (by use of algorithms) to the internet. Programmed to enable access to ‘safe sites’, those that aid rehabilitation and personal development. For example, allowing full access to The Open University’s student homepage and forums. This would open up access to a far broader range of subjects, rather than restricting prisoners (even those in Category D prisons) to the meagre prospectus for closed environments.
  • Two-way e-mail service, rather than the current one-way set-up. Outgoing emails could be verified prior to dispatch by censors. This would enable a swift but recordable message for legal or other official purposes. Just like with phone numbers, the recipients of the e-mail service would first need to consent to the link.
  • Multi-service, digital kiosks on every prison wing or fitted in every cell. These kiosks could enable prisoners to order their own item form catalogue suppliers, items on the canteen list, toiletries and prison issue clothing from the stores, or check their own finances without having to make thousands of pointless journeys to the staff office or waste paper in the process. All could be forwarded digitally to the business hub or the relevant department for processing and keeping records. The efficiency savings on staff time and finances would be immense.
  • Alternatively, or in addition, Secured laptops could be provided which enable some of the above procedures to be carried out. They could be connected to a wireless system that routinely channelled into security and monitoring systems.
  • Access to a Secure and commissioned website to upload personal photographs and view those of family and other approved persons. A facility like this would enable prisoners to share memorable moments with their loved ones and retain something tangible for the future. Currently for prisoners, it is either use a mobile phone or have a non-existent history to share with your children or grandchildren. Such a facility could be designed so that only those approved can gain access.

Many of these systems and facilitates could be interlinked. For example, an upgraded phone system, email service, restricted internet access and ordering/application systems could be part of the same apparatus. However, as previously mentioned, the possibilities with technology are unlimited and the above are merely suggested alternatives ideas that encapsulate aims and objectives in prisoners’ lives that can currently be accomplished to a far better degree by using unauthorised technology.

4. What might be the outcomes of fewer phones and other tech in the prison system?

Unfortunately, there will always be those who seek to engage in criminal activities in prisons (because the state, for example, cannot service the needs of someone seeking to earn a hundred thousand pounds through selling drugs), but, fortunately, these people are fewer in number than the vast majority of prisoners who, I believe, would move away from prohibited technology if the facilities were available for them to satisfy their existing, legitimate needs.

If this can be achieved, a revolution will gradually develop within our prisons. As people start to rely on the new technologies to meet their needs, they will naturally move away from unauthorised items. After all, there is a price to pay for getting caught with a mobile phone (The maximum penalty is two years in prison) or other technologies, so the costs will start to outweigh the benefits. Similarly, individuals who use phones for both illegitimate and legitimate purposes will reconsider their wider needs if more of their core, legitimate needs are being satisfactorily met. Dissonance will also start to increase in the minds of those who sit somewhere in the middle, and many will begin to choose the safer option. Besides, as well as the risks, it takes significant effort to smuggle unauthorised technologies into prisons, which includes reliable links to external resources.

A natural consequence would be an overall reduction in the number of phones within the prison system. Since a large number of individuals, who may have previously considered crossing the threshold (to smuggle in or purchase a phone), would no longer feel the need to partake in the tech-network, demand will drop. With fewer customers, or incentive for smugglers, the value of phones (currently around £500 to £1000 per Smart phone, depending on prison) will also decline, having a further effect on perceptions of risk-reward for individuals who play a role in smuggling phones into the system for cash, drugs or personal reasons.

With fewer people willing to use and hold phones, the individuals with enduring illegitimate motives will be exposed to more pressure from their communities, since they will feel isolated due to having less customers, associates or neighbours prepared to look after their phones. Similarly, with fewer phones in existence, those with illegitimate motives will also be more vulnerable to detection by security measures and intelligence from fellow prisoners, since security resources will go further and previous associates will no longer feel the need to be loyal. The lack of availability will also mean that if a phone gets discovered or runs out of credit, it will no longer be easy to just pop next door and, for example, use the neighbour’s phone to arrange for a new delivery or buy a top-up from a service provider. There will also be a natural drop in other technologies in the system, like dongles, USB sticks, SD cards, and whatever else may arrive in future, all technologies that enable the circumvention of prison rules and rehabilitative interventions.

With fewer phones, the amount of illegal substances entering prisons will also be reduced and should have a positive influence for the people fighting addiction. Although drug addiction is a complex issue that requires more than one solution, if the means by which drugs entering the system are adversely effected, it can only have a positive outcome. That said, drug users are not just customers for drug dealers; they are also their work horses. Their dependency due to their addiction cannot be understated and, whether through debt or threats of violence (linked to debt), their uses expand the full range when it comes to the influx, use and spread of unauthorised technology. Yet their ability to feed their addictions and assist drug smuggling networks will be affected. Not only will there be less phones for them to transfer money from, say, a friend’s or girlfriend’s bank account to a proxy account set up by a drug dealer, the increased contact they will receive with family (via authorised technologies) will improve family ties (positive influences, etc.) and discourage their addiction-related behaviours.

5. What might be the outcomes of new and improved technology?

As people shift to more appropriate methods of communication, anyone looking to return to more inappropriate means will find it harder to locate, forcing them to rely on the authorised forms of communication which are monitored and recorded by censors and security. This will be one of the most significant outcomes of providing more up-to-date and affordable means of communication. The standard security measures in place to protect the public will be put to full effect and assist in curtailing crime and risk-related behaviour.

With new and better forms of technology rolled out across the prison system, outcomes in education (whether provided by the State or offered by Distance Learning providers) and interventions (Offending Behaviour Programmes, Therapy, PIPES, Progression Regimes, etc.) will be enhanced. With less chaos, drugs and distractions, people will be able to focus on their short-term and long-term goals more effectively. Another important outcome will be familiarisation. For the individuals serving long sentences, the current lack of interaction with modern forms of technology (particularly digitalised self-service facilities) means that under current conditions they are leaving prison and entering a world that is almost foreign. With the best intentions in the world, the transition from a prisoner to a citizen can be a difficult one to make, so up-to-date tech would enable prisoners to familiarised themselves with the IT and self-service systems, smoothing the eventual reintegration process and helping people to succeed on the first time round, rather than on the second or third attempt.


This paper has argued that the disparity between the growth of technology in society and its restricted use inside prisons has distorted progress, led to more crime and places society at continued risk. Moreover, successive governments have unwittingly allowed the situation to develop because of fears that something might go wrong if technologies were to rolled out across the system.

However, in order to win the battle over the imbalance in tech-ownership, governments of the day need to collaborate with industries to develop technological solutions that provide access to better and more affordable facilities that meet the legitimate needs of the prison population. If this could be achieved, those committing serious crime can be isolated, identified and curtailed. In addition, the individuals who are serious about changing their lives around and engaging fully in the rehabilitation process will be able to do so without distraction, and perhaps then the revolving door of crime can be slowed to a more manageable and inexpensive pace.

Finally, as technology continues to advance in society, no doubt more advanced forms of communication will appear on the market. Therefore, if there was to be an implementation of better technology in prisons, it would need constant revision to make sure current technologies are up-to-date and able to interact/communicate effectively with external forms, as well as meet the needs of prisoners. An initial outlay would be needed, but the returns would massively outweigh the investment. The current cost of crime to the British taxpayer is astronomical, so the savings would not only reduce the burden on public finances, it would, if people left prison as better human beings, be socially beneficial too.

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