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Informing Digital Provision In Prisons: Securing an Evidence Base to Optimise Digital Opportunities for Prisoners and Staff

We welcomed the opportunity to attend the Corrections Research Symposium in Prague supported by ICPA and EuroPris in May 2018. Our panel brought together two researchers and two practitioners, all of whom are interested in developing digital technology within the corrections landscape. Victoria and Justin shared their experiences of undertaking research in the field of digital technologies, whilst Simon and Steven focused on the complexity of developing and commissioning digital services in correctional organisation. We’d like to share some of our highlights and reflections based on this discussion.

The aim of this panel session was to explore:

  • What research has been done in the field of digital technology and corrections;
  • What gaps are there in knowledge-priorities, agendas, need and methodologies;
  • Investment in research-securing opportunities for research and developing relationships with prisons and developers;
  • What makes good research in new and emerging field of development.

Victoria and Justin talked about the kinds of research undertaken to date and noted that much of this work had taken place within four fields of broad enquiry. This research remains small but is slowly developing.


This kind of research explores the social nature of prisoners’ (and staff) interactions with technology in the context of the prison. Key messages from this research suggest that digital use in prisons can help reduce and mitigate against the harms of incarceration. It also has an impact on social interactions and the ways in which prisoners interact with each other and staff. Researchers have identified that digitization can contribute toward the normalizing process by helping prisoners to adjust to life inside as well as prepare for release. In addition some research has also explored the public’s opinion on technology use in prisons.


Much of this research explores the effects technology has on behaviour in terms of things like conduct, incidents and violence. Some work on gaming explores motivations for use. It also covers work on e-health. It considers the impact on traditional psychology practice and the profession within prison settings.


Within this field of research technology including gaming has been deployed to enhance learning and different kinds of interventions such as induction processes, basic mental health, education as well as augmented and virtual reality. Social Network analysis has also been explored.

Simon reflected on this aspect supporting the idea that results of research should inform services and contribute to decision making and the business value realization. Simon impressed the need for evidence quickly to enable learning and reflection. He recommended an agile approach that is collaborative between researchers and stakeholders. Much consideration is needed with respect to industry standards also.


Here research has captured the educational progression of prisoners and distance learning as well as explorations in relation to digital literacy.

Steven outlined that technology brings new didactical approaches such as distance education, blended learning and e-learning which have a huge potential to enable more access to education for prisoners. Also other new types of technology such as Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Serious Gaming are slowly entering the prisons to support education and treatment and without having substantial research on how it could be used or when it is perhaps better not to use this technology at all.

Gaps in Knowledge:

The panel highlighted that there are a number of gaps in evidence base such as the short and long term impact on the prison and its people, the costs of implementation and use, the legal and contractual features of digitization, the impact on families and the meaningfulness of strategies and change management. It was noted that research to date has tended to be siloed in academic/disciplinary fields and that there is a case for research moving forward to be inter-disciplinary or hybrid.

Steven and Victoria reflected on the challenges to undertaking research in prison settings noting that services and researchers need to be sensitive to the following features:

  • Ethics- ensuring research does not enhance harm and ensuring privacy;
  • Funding- paying for the research;
  • Perceptions- how findings from research are handled;
  • Collaboration (multi-disciplinary)- bringing together different researchers and practitioners to execute the research;
  • Publishing- be aware of publishing constraints;
  • Access to prisons where technology is been deployed and piloted- availability of projects to researchers;
  • Academic vs commercial/industry agendas- handling relationships.

The planning and implementation of technologies in organisations is a very difficult and complicated process. Steven addressed some issues and challenges regarding the provision of services, starting with the complexity of choosing the best solution to fit the business objectives. In many organisations the technology itself gets more attention then the goals and benefits it needs to bring. More knowledge is needed to support making those choices by analysing which types of technologies as well as the impact of quality parameters such as usability, accessibility, performance, user support and training have on the outcomes of digital transformation projects in prisons.

Simon and Steven reflected on the challenges digital integration presents to services. The readiness of services to integrate technology requires planning and investment and they warned against implementing technology for the sake of it. Instead it should meet a need. They would like researchers to consider the true value of technology to the delivery of services.

Moving forward privacy (GDPR) and the generation of Big Data presents a number of dilemmas for researchers but also opportunities. New technology brings additional tools for researchers to undertake their work at relatively quickly, for instance the use of surveys completed online. The challenge is that technology is evolving quickly and research is typically slow. How then do we capture evidence in a fast paced world and gather value evidence? Should good research be all about outcomes?

Reflections from Delegates:

Points that were raised by delegates included:

  • Turkey’s use of big data to help prison services make risk assessments;
  • Belgium’s Prison Cloud now includes a helpdesk function where users can chat to the provider for help and guidance. In addition contact with tutors for education is now included;
  • Canada’s offender management system is assisting human resources with their staffing population;
  • The use of body worn cameras is prevalent in many jurisdictions but there is little evidence to support the use of this kind of technology;
  • The use of contraband mobile phones is under explored. Evidence remains anecdotal and we don’t know enough about the demand, use and motivations for use.

ICPA has launched a digital discussion group for the Technology and Innovation Network. To join this network please contact Dr Victoria Knight at

Author: Dr Victoria Knight, Dr Justin Trounson, Steven Van De Steene, Simon Bonk, ICPA Technology Solutions Network