computer prison study 1

by David Breakspear

“ICT and digital systems in prison must support more flexible access to learning that is tailored to the needs of individual learners and enables participation in distance and other learning.”  (Coates, 2016)

People are sent to prison as punishment for a crime they are alleged to have committed. I say alleged as I am no longer confident that a finding of guilt in court is an indication of whether the alleged guilty party, is in fact, guilty; however, this is a separate debate.

Why are ICT and digital systems, and of course education, important in prison?

If we look around us there is technology everywhere. There was even a recent story on Twitter about a teenage girl Tweeting from her fridge as her mum took away all her tech, or so she thought. An image of watching a film on a microwave while the popcorn cooks inside it is not too far away it seems? To some, self-opening doors will be a surprise, let alone the plethora of technology now employed in the ‘self-service’ industry. Shopping, cash, petrol, clothing, Christmas trees, decorations and, no need for last minute, presents all available at the click of a button. And all delivered direct to your home. Which of course can all be ‘smart’-controlled: you can have your coffee ready for you in the morning. Put the white-wash on in a machine smart enough to know there’s a red sock included, saving the subsequent ranting at the washing machine, blaming an inanimate object for somehow climbing the stairs and picking up the stray red sock. Is there a need to even leave the house? Who’s the prisoner now? A rhetorical question.

Education in prison has, in my opinion, been underfunded for too long. It has improved somewhat from the days of struggling to get even the most basic of education. Or even a pencil! But it has not come far enough, especially when considering the lack of technology in prison available to prisoners.

it has not come far enough, especially when considering the lack of technology in prison available to prisoners.

I for one suffered due to the lack of technology. After successfully completing a distance learning course, namely an access module with The Open University, through funding from Prisoners’ Education Trust, I successfully applied for a student loan to study for a degree in criminology and psychological studies, once again with The Open University. I had paid a few thousand pounds, the same price as students in the community which is fair, and yet had access to distinctly fewer resources than those outside which is unfair. The problems did not end there. Upon release, and with access to my student home dashboard on The Open University website, I became overwhelmed by this sudden influx of information. So much so that I had to defer my studies for a year, costing me an extra £1,500. To put the feeling of being overwhelmed in context, ordering a needed book via the prison library was time-consuming and subject to staffing-levels, and there I was in front of the world’s library with a choice delivered in seconds. Doctor and Professor advice a click away. To some, maybe the difference between pass or fail? To prisoners? Tough.

Had the student home dashboard, even in a read-only mode, been available to me while I was a student in a secure environment then I believe none of this would have happened. That is without the costs psychologically once the voices of self-doubt had had their say on their matter. Their anger however, directed only at me.

One look at a Christmas stocking of a child later this year, will no doubt be evidence of the importance some parents feel technology plays in the upbringing of their children. Imagine then, children of parents who do not believe in technology. How will these children, who have been denied technology converse with their new peers from school now in their lives? And probably more so than the denying parent. What chatter will they chitter, as the children navigate their teenage years searching  for an identity?

Imagine being an adult with no clue about the technology around you? Who would you converse with? What tittle do you tattle at the water-cooler? If of course you can find a job due to being  years behind in your set of skills. Taught Office 2007 some ten years later, but only the stuff you can do offline. They can’t show you how to send an email. What social media is all about? How to scan your own-shopping?

Having a ball and chain around your leg, a criminal record, and only the ability to look at a computer sitting on a desk rather than put it to work, are enough obstacles to overcome on the way to a competitive job interview, or even the garage to fill up on a bit of juice.

Prisoners are already at a disadvantage by the simple fact that they have been in prison. Spending an unspecified amount of time without choice or responsibility, removed on day one of prison.

In a 2010 paper titled ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’, Prof. Fergus McNeill and Dr Beth Weaver suggested that:

Taking responsibility increases a sense of self-worth. Equally, it appears that encouraging self-resilience can motivate the person to take steps to prepare adequately for resettlement.

I strongly believe we should remove the sense of shame from the criminal justice system and, instead, instil hope and self-belief. We must provide pathways beyond prison and help lead individuals down those pathways until such time they can navigate their own way with confidence.

By embracing technology for the benefit of the prisoner, we will not only provide opportunities for them to take responsibility for their sentence but as McNeill and Weaver suggest it will increase self-worth and can motivate the individual to prepare for a successful disengagement from the criminal justice system along with the right set of modern and up to date skills.


Featured image CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Outlandos

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