empty prison hallway

Long read: Charities’ prison access problem and the promise of digital

19 September 2017

An acute public sector worker crisis in our prisons means that some officers are too understaffed to safely unlock prisoners to take part in purposeful activity. For charities working to support prison residents, this is a real problem. Grace Wyld looks at the importance of accessible prisons, and how digital solutions might help.

The country’s prison crisis rumbles on

When residents of HMP The Mount rioted last month it emerged that the prison had been nearly 50 staff short, serving cold meals at the cell door for weeks, with inmates often on 24-hour lock down.

If you lock people up in a cell for days at a time, their well-being and health suffer, they get frustrated and are more likely to be violent. It also means they aren’t accessing charities services that could help them prepare to return to the outside world.

Staff shortages means charities are struggling to access and support prisoners

Barriers to access is something many prison-based criminal justice charities are facing.

Prison access is often thought of only as ‘outside-in’: a charity builds a relationship with a prison governor who believes in the value of their programme and allows them inside to run the programme.

But internal access is also a problem: an acute public sector worker crisis in our prisons means that some officers are too understaffed to safely unlock prisoners to take part in purposeful activity. So charities and volunteers are quite literally in the building, ready and waiting to help, but aren’t able to meet with service users.

As a result charities are under-delivering and resources are being wasted. I spoke to a charity recently that had an annual target of reaching 90 prisoners last year but only managed to deliver the programme to 30.

Frustrated funders are already pulling out from the justice sector because of the mess of government commissioning changes to probation. Could the current shortage in prison officers add an additional barrier for funders? It’s a really worrying prospect.

Charities are thinking about how they can work around these issues

As is the case for many social issues, this is a challenge the voluntary sector is having to tackle on at least two fronts: major systemic changes are needed in our prison system, and many are busy campaigning for these; but in the meantime they must also look for ways they can continue to reach and support people in need.

Many are thinking about how they can give cell-based ‘homework’ to be done in hours of lock-down when residents can’t access usual services. The intention is to give back something to the men and women who will feel they have had something they value taken from them when they cannot access the usual support.

Where prisons are modernising, there are even more opportunities to increase access

To add to the list of issues at play, most prisons are also completely incompatible with the digital age. While residents of the outside world re-order cat food on their apple watch, prisons are heavily reliant on pencil and paper.

Modernisation is starting to happen, however. At HMP Berwyn, the new ‘super prison’ near Birmingham, each two-man room has a laptop, used to arrange visits, order meals and organise shopping. So charities can look at maximising this, thinking about where things like cell-based homework can be delivered digitally.

And it’s not just educational purposes that digital can help charities deliver on. Prisoners who spend time with a relative are 39% less likely to reoffend within a year of release. But in our current analogue system, relatives are expected to spend time and money they don’t have travelling across the country to make these visits. Lord Farmer’s highly anticipated review on the importance of family relationships for male prisoners recommended that prisoners be able to skype their families and friends.

There’s nothing new in charities thinking about ways that they can use technology to reduce the isolation of prisoners. The Prison Radio Association has been bringing radio to prisoners since 2006, with 76% of prisoners saying they listen to it, the average person listening for 10 hours a week. Storybook Dads records prisoners reading bedtime stories to send to their children on the outside.

These projects exist not as a work-around to systemic failures in prisons’ basic functioning but because there is genuine benefit in making our prison walls more porous. Keeping inmates connected to communities is important to reducing reoffending: if someone leaving prison feels unwelcomed by society, rather than a part of it, they are more likely to reoffend. Technology connects us in unprecedented ways and should be used to bring prisons back into the community too.

But will digital innovation solve anything?

But some caution is needed. There is a risk that digital innovation in charity provision creates a perverse incentive for governors to replace physical programmes with activities that can be done from behind bars on a laptop, if it ticks the box of purposeful activity whilst cutting costs.

And if technology replaces human interaction all together, there is a danger it will exacerbate many of the problems charities are working to reduce—namely isolation and loneliness. 2016 saw the highest number of suicides in prison ever recorded: 119 people took their own lives. There are real consequences at play here.

Necessity is the mother of innovation

There is no escaping the fact that we need a radical rethink of what our prison system is; we must think hard on the role they could play in re-engaging people with a society they are likely to be disillusioned with, rather than isolating or alienating them further. But it’s good to see charities continuing to think creatively in the meantime. ‘Charities will stick around for as long as it takes’, an organisation told us during our criminal justice research. In some cases, this really shows.

See our recent research Beyond bars: Maximising the voluntary sector’s contribution in criminal justice.