Digital Technology and the Prison of the Future

Digital technologies are transforming the prison system as we know it. The prison of the future will better meet the needs of inmates during their sentences. It will prepare prisoners more effectively for life after incarceration. And it will be run with all the efficiency of a for-profit business. At the same time, these technologies will also help keep more low-level, nonviolent offenders out of prison in the first place.

Let’s look at how technology is addressing the challenges facing prisons today and how it will redefine the prison of tomorrow.

Three challenges facing the prison system

To see the potential impact of digital technology on corrections, it’s important to understand the main challenges facing prison systems in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere: overcrowding, cost, and effectiveness.

Prison overcrowding is a global issue. The number of prisoners exceeds capacity in at least 114 countries, and prison systems in 20 nations hold more than double their capacity.

The problem of overcrowding is particularly acute in the United States, where there are approximately 2.3 million inmates-22 percent of the world’s prison population. In about half of the states reporting data in 2013, prisons were at 99 percent or more of their operational capacity, with Alabama’s jails at 197 percent. Although federal prisons saw a slight decline in their prison population in 2014-the first in 34 years-medium- and highsecurity prisons were still operating at 39 percent and 52 percent above capacity, respectively.

What’s behind these numbers? Between 1975 and 2002, all 50 states adopted mandatory sentencing laws requiring prison time for certain offenses. Nearly three-quarters of states and the federal government implemented mandatory jail time for drug-related crimes in particular. Moreover, “three strikes” laws strengthened sentences for offenders with prior felony convictions. In recent years, immigration-related cases have added to the number of prisoners in federal prisons.

There are a number of negative outcomes from overly crowded prison systems:

  • Increased stress among inmates and staff, leading to a greater risk of violence
  • Degraded prison facilities
  • Inadequate healthcare and the spread of disease
  • Prisoners may be moved to another region far from their families, making visits more difficult

Changes to sentencing guidelines-particularly those related to drug offenses-can reduce overcrowding. As discussed below, technology can also play an important role in reducing prison populations.

Prisons are expensive. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the US prison system cost taxpayers $39 billion in 2012. Among 40 states surveyed in 2012, the aggregate cost to house, feed, and guard a prisoner was $31,286. The annual cost per inmate in state prison varies, from about $14,000 in Indiana to about $60,000 in New York. In fact, the cost to feed, house, and guard an inmate in New York City in 2012 was an astonishing $168,000 a year.

In the UK, the average cost per prisoner is approximately £40,000 ($53,000) per year. With about 85,000 prisoners, Britain spends more than $4.5 billion annually on its prisoners. Costs per prisoner elsewhere in Europe vary, from €3 per prisoner per day in Bulgaria to €621 in Sweden.

Too often, prison is a revolving door. The statistics on recidivism are grim: within three years of release, 68 percent of released prisoners in the United States are rearrested; within five years, the figure is 77 percent. In the UK, 59 percent of prisoners whose sentences are less than 12 months reoffend within a year. Of course, it’s not only prisons that are affected by recidivism-the police and courts are also strained by the need to pursue and try repeat offenders.

What the recidivism figures reveal is a serious shortcoming: prisons are not fulfilling their responsibility to prepare prisoners for success after leaving prison.

How technology is transforming the prison system
Technology is playing a key role in addressing these three challenges by helping keep more people out of prison, redefining the prison experience, and giving corrections officials the tools to run prison as a business.

Using data to prevent incarceration
Reducing the prison population means, in part, keeping more people out of prison, whether first-time offenders or reoffenders. With the rise of digital technologies and the cloud, corrections leaders have at their disposal new ways to prevent criminal behaviour. Technology also gives judges sentencing options other than traditional brick-and-mortar prison.

Here are three examples of how technology can help:
BI in preventing crime and alternative sentencing. Business intelligence tools can help reduce overcrowding. For example, data might reveal that some offenders who fit a certain profile are more likely to commit crimes again. In these cases, police could proactively counsel at-risk individuals and warn them that their next offense could result in incarceration. With this risk-management approach, police can help steer people away from criminal activity and possible jail time.

Similarly, big data can guide judges as they determine sentences. For instance, perhaps data shows that some types of offenders are more likely to do poorly in prison or reoffend after leaving jail. For these offenders, a community service sentence might be more effective, if appropriate to the crime committed. This arrangement would also mean adding one less person to an overstretched prison system.

Electronic tagging. A monitoring device worn by an offender-or someone accused of a crime and awaiting trial-offers a number of benefits. Tracked electronically, nonviolent offenders could avoid a prison cell and complete their sentences in the community. In jurisdictions where it can take months or even years before a case goes to trial, allowing the accused-who may in fact be innocent-to return to productive work while wearing a device eases the burden on the prison system and the accused’s family.

Electronic tagging, combined with other available data, also greatly improves parole officers’ monitoring of parolees. Using geospatial mapping, parole officers can get real-time data on the location of the offenders in their care. Is a parolee going to classes or treatment? Or spending time in a neighbourhood full of bars or drug dealers? Having this information can help parole officers intervene when necessary, keep offenders on the right track, and potentially prevent further crime from happening.

Tagging also enables parole officers to monitor offenders with substance-abuse issues. For instance, a pilot project in London uses “sobriety tags” to monitor individuals convicted of alcohol-related crimes. Worn around the clock, the tag measures perspiration every 30 minutes and if alcohol is detected, a parole officer is notified.

Furthermore, electronic tagging helps identify which rehabilitation programs are successful. If certain programs show particularly high attendance, it could be an indicator (with other data) that the program is working. Judges may wish to send more offenders to such a program when considering sentencing options.

The cost savings associated with electronic tagging can be substantial. In the UK, for example, the cost of tagging is £6,000 a year versus the aforementioned £40,000 a year for incarceration.

Mobile technology
Mobile applications can also play an important role in helping felons succeed outside of prison. For example, an app downloaded onto an offender’s phone could enable parole officers to keep tabs on an offender’s whereabouts. Like electronic tagging, mobile device tracking would allow a parole officer to monitor parolees and intervene if necessary in the case of high-risk behaviour.

Offenders struggling with substance abuse in particular could benefit from mobile technology. In a recent study in Massachusetts, 30 drug offenders used an app that gave them helpful information about drug treatment, connected them to social networking tools, and sent motivational messages throughout the day encouraging them to stay in recovery. The study found that the app was opened an average of 62 percent of the days the participants had the app over a four-month period, suggesting that a recovery support app can be effective.

With other mobile apps, offenders can submit substance-abuse test results to their parole officer using their phone.

A further use of mobile technology is to reward offenders for good behaviour, which may help keep more offenders out of prison. One way to do this is to offer tokens or badges whenever a parolee reaches a goal-say, 10 days in a row of going to treatment. These tokens or badges could then be redeemed for privileges-for example, a later curfew-or other rewards.

As in the case of electronic tagging, mobile offender management solutions are a fraction of the cost of incarceration.

Creating a better prison experience through technology
Not only is technology helping keep more offenders out of prison, it’s also redefining what the prison of tomorrow will look like. The fact is, the majority of prisoners will at some point re-enter society.  Rehabilitation, not just punishment, must be a major goal of incarceration. With this in mind, what can prisons do to maximize inmates’ chances of success outside prison walls?

Here are some ideas:
Better communications. With access to Skype, prisoners can, for example, take vocational classes interactively and speak with family members. By connecting with family, prisoners can keep up with their family’s daily activities and maintain relationships they may need to rely on after prison.

Tablets for prisoners. Some European countries provide tablets to prisoners to support e-learning, shopping, and streaming media. Prisoners-many of whom are digital natives-are thus protected from isolation but still in a controlled digital space.

Kiosks within prisons. Using kiosks, prisoners can choose their meals, see their financial accounts, or view approved photos sent from friends or family. Having kiosks in prisons is another way to improve the prison experience so that fewer prisoners end up in jail again. Kiosks also get prisoners more comfortable using technology they will likely come across on the outside.

Educational opportunities. Connecting prisoners to learning opportunities should be a top priority for prison administrators. Training can occur within the prison or, using Skype, prisoners can take classes remotely. With practical skills, it’s easier for prisoners to find work and stability post-incarceration.

Improved healthcare. Healthy prisoners are more likely to complete their rehabilitation, participate in job-training programs, and adapt to daily life more rapidly after prison. Ensuring that prisoners get sufficient physical and mental healthcare, including drug treatment, should be standard practice in the prison of the future.

Keeping inmates in the vicinity of family. An inmate’s family typically plays an important role in his or her life. Family members’ visits can help motivate prisoners in their rehabilitation efforts. Moreover, inmates leaving prison will turn to family for housing as well as financial and emotional support. Therefore, placing prisoners as close to their families as possible help smooth their transition to the outside world.

Visitor, business, and community portal. A growing number of prisons are investing in online portals to enable families of inmates to check visiting hours and schedule visits. These portals can also be used by organizations which provide prisons with goods and services as well as community organizations facilitating the re-entry of offenders into society-for example, churches, medical clinics, housing organizations, charities, and government retraining programs.

More personalized rehabilitation. By tailoring support such as counselling, healthcare, and training to each inmate’s individual needs and goals, prisoners are better equipped to build new lives upon leaving prison.

Ultimately, improving the prison experience in these and other ways empowers corrections leaders to reduce recidivism, lower the prison population, and save money.

Prison as a business
Digital transformation makes it possible to consider prison as a business. In this model, prisons don’t turn a profit; rather, corrections leaders use technology to seek the same efficiencies and cost savings they would if the prisons were a for-profit enterprise. Here are some elements of this approach:

Streamlined operations. By moving away from paper and manual interventions and instead digitizing processes and workflows, prisons can streamline their operations. As a result, the accuracy of data improves, since cases and files from the court’s case management system are automatically entered into the prison’s system without the need for manual inputs. Digitization also helps prisons to better manage sentences, minimizes the risk of corruption, and lowers costs.

More efficient back-office operations. Prisons can benefit from a variety of off-the-shelf solutions-for human resources, finance, procurement, stores and supplies, fleet and maintenance, and catering, for example-built on Microsoft Dynamics CRM and AX, whether as on-premises solutions or using cloud-based Azure services.

Cross-agency collaboration and information sharing. With Skype for Business, multiple agencies can talk and share information in real time, and as a result improve cross-agency effectiveness. For example, upon sentencing, courts could electronically notify a prison of an impending prisoner transfer, the terms and conditions of the sentence, and any other associated information.

Moving prisoners from prison to court to testify is a huge cost-generally 10 percent of any prison’s expenses. With a communication tool such as Skype, prisoners can testify remotely, as well as talk with their attorney remotely. There’s also a safety aspect to remote communications, since in this situation the prisoner isn’t removed from a secure facility.

Moreover, data on criminal activity committed within prisons- gang activity, for example-can be transmitted to police agencies, so problem offenders can be monitored upon release.

Inmate management. An essential duty for prison officials, inmate management covers a person from the point of incarceration to the time of release back into society. When prisoners are checked into the prison and allocated a cell, an individual profile is created so they receive the right clothes, food, medication, and training. This profile becomes an inmate’s unified case file throughout his or her time in prison. The automation of such systems, when compared to often inaccurate and cumbersome paper-based record-keeping, can result in enormous improvement in prisons’ operational efficiency.

Physical security and smart buildings. Another top responsibility of prison officials is security. They must prevent inmates from escaping, stop illegal goods from being brought into the prison, protect inmates from each other, and safeguard prison officers and staff as well as visitors to the facility. CCTV, sensors, and surveillance systems are increasingly being used to monitor high-risk areas such as prison grounds, the immediate perimeter, and prison cells, in addition to community areas such as visitor areas, exercise rooms, and canteens. Aerial drones are also being used to monitor the area around prisons, day and night.

Internet of Things (IoT) in the prison. Prisons are looking to intelligent technologies to provide additional levels of security, especially as prisons become increasingly overcrowded and staff numbers are reduced. Examples of how the IoT can help prisons improve security include finger, face, and eye recognition to identify inmates, robust kiosks with which prisoners can order goods and book training courses, RFID, tagging and bands to track inmates and alert staff if someone appears to be in distress or entering a denied area, and sensors that trigger alerts in situations involving drugs, fire, or gunfire.


To make the prison of the future a reality, corrections leaders must address the challenges of overcrowding, high costs, and high rates of recidivism. Fortunately, digital technologies offer new ways of confronting these issues, by helping keep offenders out of traditional prison, improving the prison experience itself, and treating prison as if it were a business. Backed by digital technology, the prison of tomorrow can accomplish what prison was always meant to do: not just punish offenders, but give them the training and support they need to build a better life after prison.

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