Could WiFi help in reforming prisons?

Written by Sofia Gunnarsson  —  on 3rd November 2018.

The Government’s push for reforming the prison service is built around the need to improve rehabilitation rates. The shake up of the prison service was also at the heart of new laws laid out in the latest Queen’s speech.

Supporting someone to follow a lawful path in life goes beyond a philosophical debate. Prisoners need practical support and actions if they are to succeed. If we look at other countries, especially in Scandinavia, where the premise of the prison system is to rehabilitate as opposed to purely punish a lot can be learnt.

In a recent speech on the issue of technology in jails, Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons said: “I can think of few jobs nowadays that do not require at least a basic level of IT skills. In importance it’s just a short way between basic literacy and numeracy.

“It is not just a matter of education and training. How do you apply for a job without web access? Look for and apply for accommodation? Manage your money? Make travel arrangements?”

Norway has one of the lowest reoffending rates at only 20%. There are a lot of factors contributing to this and one of them is the access, tightly controlled of course, that prisoners have to the internet.

As Norwegian prison governor Arne Wilson, who is also a clinical psychologist, explained to The Guardian:

“In closed prisons we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”

There are understandable concerns about allowing prisoners to have internet access. Some prisoners currently use mobile phones to illicitly get online, and there will always be some individuals that must be kept away from the internet at all costs. But for most, allowing access to the internet can help them with their job search, provide them access to educational resources, allow them to keep in contact with their friends and family, and prevent isolating them on the fringes of society.

Robust controls and filtering are now available to prevent access to inappropriate sites.

Learning from the Armed Forces and corporate environments

One only needs to look at other sectors that require tight security and strict controls to see the potential for deploying WiFi in UK prisons.

Take the armed services as an example. Barracks and training facilities are often in remote locations with little access to the outside world, personnel have very strict timetables to follow but WiFi is viewed as a welfare issue so the armed forces can stay in touch with family and friends. Resettlement after leaving the forces can also be a challenge, meaning that access to information on finding housing, jobs and educational tools is essential.

Armed Forces sites place great demands on a network. Whether it is a soldier wanting to watch a film on Netflix in the evening (using PAYG internet), a cadet accessing the course materials they need to study, or an officer communicating with colleagues, a network can be secured and different priorities given to meet all these needs.

In the corporate world, some companies even block access on their networks to certain websites and social networks, least it harm productivity levels.

If the armed forces and the corporate world can make WiFi work for them, so can the prison service. Prisons need to establish a secure WiFi connection, one that not only tightly controls what can be accessed but also monitors what is being looked at. Yes, it needs to have strong access control, but by blocking all prisoners from what’s now seen as one of the most basic necessities, the prison service is helping to further isolate and alienate their charges.

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