The connected prison: swapping lock and key for biometrics and RFID

Connected prison

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Public sector? Tick. New technology? Tick. Sensitive issue? Tick.

It is hard to believe after the recent public sector IT scandals that the UK government may be about to do it all again. This time it is with high-security prisons.

“In every prison cell there will be a thin client touch screen that will allow prisoners to book visits, appointments with doctor, and even choose meal options, as well as check how much money they have in their account,” says former prison governor Kevin Lockyer.

Lockyer is director of KML Consulting and author of the recent Policy Exchange report Future Prisons: a radical plan to reform the prison estate. Policy Exchange, founded by current Conservative ministers Michael Gove and Francis Maude, has been described as the bootcamp for Tory modernisers. Future Prisons advocates the building of 12 state-of-the-art hub prisons that can house between 2,500 and 3,000 inmates at one time and will have new technology like biometrics “hard-wired into the design and operation” of the prison. These hub prisons would replace up to 30 smaller and poorly located prisons. In July, Future Prisons was cited by justice secretary Chris Grayling when answering questions on the new 2,000-prisoner jail in North Wales, which will replace a number of Victorian prisons.

The goal, says Lockyer, is to “move away from the traditional prison environment with its clanging doors and locks”. Biometrics and passive tagging would, for example, allow prisoners who have booked an appointment with the doctor to “pass from prison cell to prison wing and then to the doctor’s surgery around the time of their appointment without having members of staff to walk them there locking and unlocking doors as they went”.

What could possibly go wrong?

Politicians are hoping that the wonders of new technology will help them manage some of the most dangerous people in society while at the same time looking over their shoulder at a public — and media — who fear that a realtime radio frequency bracelet isn’t as safe or punitive as a metal bar. This technology has been mooted in some cases since the 1990s, but has hitherto been introduced in a piecemeal way, rarely fully exploited and, in some prisons, abandoned.

In Holland, Detention Concept Lelystad, often called The Prison of The Future, uses bracelets to track the movement of prisoners. Fingerprint scanners have been introduced into an increasing number of prisons in the UK and US to control the movement of prisoners and even the distribution of drugs like Methadone to addicts. HMP Isis hit the headlines last year when the failure of fingerprint scanning technology at the new private sector prison brought the place to a halt, leaving guards to carry out a manual check. Iris scanners or facial recognition systems are usually considered too expensive or difficult to use. From Texas to Yorkshire telehealth is being used in an increasing number of prisons so that prisoners no longer have to make the dangerous and expensive trip to hospital for a simple look-see.

In LA the Active Denial System or ‘pain ray’ — a charming tool that fires extremely high frequency waves at a target and causes the skin to warm up and feel as though the person is on fire — has been used to reduce assaults in prison, having been abandoned by the US Military.

However, Lockyer’s vision for the use of a new technology “platform” in the prisons of the future is more benign than the Los Angeles county Sheriff’s Department.

“My vision is to give prisoners a greater degree of responsibility for their own actions,” says Lockyer. “So prisoners don’t become dependent on prisons and it becomes more like the real world.

“It then frees prison staff to do high-quality work with offenders as fewer staff are needed to answer questions, book appointments and lock and unlock doors.” Such tasks, he says, “take up a significant amount of staff time”.

“Most prison wardens want to do good-quality work with prisoners and they know they are not doing it.”

However, Mike Nellis strikes a note of caution around all this techno-optimism. Nellis is emeritus professor in criminal justice at the University of Strathclyde and is one of the editors of Electronically Monitored Punishment.

“Inmate-tracking systems have been little used in Europe,” says Nellis. “And if they wanted to do more of it they would have done it by now.

“In mainland Europe there is the feeling that it’s not needed from both ends of the political spectrum as it’s either under-control or over-control. The left wing sees it as an extension of the surveillance society. The right wing sees it is as not punitive enough as you need tough people not tags.”

Nellis doesn’t believe that new technology is driving government policy but rather that “technology does change government’s options”.

“In this age of austerity once a new technology is at a reasonable cost governments are going to take notice of it. So while the technology creates possibilities, commerce and government create realities.”

According to Nellis, the prison service rejected the use of tracking technology for open prisons in the 1990s owing to the fact that it “didn’t provide enough extra security”. The UK’s right wing tabloid newspapers make such decisions difficult for a government as technological solutions to the problems of prison life seem less punitive than metal bars and locks.


However, Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform rejects these proposals for super-prisons. He feels strongly “that super-prisons are more to do with saving money than the benefits of new technology”.

It is better to have 200-300 people in a prison than 3,000 “as they are easier to manage”. Larger prisons, he believes, lead to more drugs, violence and bad relationships between the prisoners and the staff as “there are never enough[staff]”.

He agrees with Lockyer that new technology can enable so-called dynamic regimes in prisons, where “there are good relationships between prisoners and staff and prisoners have more freedom of movement in a secure environment”.

“The biggest barrier to facilitating movement is locking gates that can only be unlocked by staff.”

Neilson believes that “new technology like CCTV or biometrics can facilitate” both dynamic regimes and so-called static regimes with their “bars, surveillance and poor relationships”.

Yet he cautions that the introduction of technology “shouldn’t be used as a fig leaf for not discussing how many people we are locking up on a dramatically reduced prison budget”.

He is concerned that new technology is being used to as a way of “warehousing the maximum of number of people in a single site”.

For Glyn Travis, the problem with new technology in prisons is the very fact that “it is new technology” and as such “has a tendency to break down and fail”. Travis is the press officer for the Prison Officers Association.

“However, in prisons the technology has to be 100 percent reliable as lives depend on it; and when it does fail it is the taxpayer who puts up the bill.

“Personal radios for officers have failed and alarm systems too. Biometrics have failed on cell doors as well.”

If a new technology doesn’t work in a prison, “then you have a real problem”. “You have to be mindful of that.”

While Lockyer accepts that his proposals will mean fewer prison officers he argues that “those who will be doing it will be more highly skilled”.

He also argues that the technology he is proposing to use in Future Prisons is “tried and tested”. What’s new, he believes, is “putting together the components for the first time”.

He accepts that using biometrics and tagging is not risk-free; nonetheless, he points out that similar technology is used to secure nuclear weapons. And traditional low-tech security of bars, Chubb locks and keys isn’t risk-free either, since there are people who can “cut a key for a lock just after one look at the key”.

Lockyer does, however, admit that the public sector doesn’t have a great track record on technological solutions, but that since the 1990s most prisons have been designed and built by the private sector.

As to whether the “tabloid factor” acts as a brake on the adoption of this technology: “Absolutely, no doubt about it.”

“Putting payphones in prison cells has been shown to reduce violence, suicide, self-harm and even the smuggling in of mobile phones, yet when the tabloids found out about it the government backed down.

“It is a question for the government whether they want policy dictated by evidence or the Daily Mail. The government may well be able to say that it [the technology] is an issue for those building the prison rather than specify it themselves.”

In the end while the Ministry of Justice says “it is too early” for them to make a statement on the use of new technology in the new North Wales super prison, for Nellis, “mainland Europe has much more of a tendency to keep technology in its place and not dispense with the human function” than England and Wales.

Lockyer, though, believes there is a “good narrative” to the use of this technology in prisons, one that stresses prisons that are “more secure and cost less”

>What’s more, he adds, “It would place us at the forefront of the prison world.”

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