It’s been a little over two years since the Scottish Government launched its Digital Strategy for Justice, aiming to deliver ‘fast, simple and effective justice at the best cost’.
High time, then, to take a look at the progress so far and - a few weeks ago - I made my own contribution to the conversation when I accepted an invitation to speak at the Digital Justice conference in Edinburgh.
I’d been asked to bring delegates up to date on what Jisc’s digital student project has discovered about how technology can be used to support prisoner learning.
A golden opportunity – missed?
Using technology in this way is a key part of the wider digital strategy for justice, because we know first-hand how it can improve learning and attainment. Time in prison offers another opportunity for offenders to learn and make a fresh start when earlier efforts to engage them have often failed.
As the UK government’s Open Justice web pages remind us,
“equipping offenders for life after prison is one of the main challenges. Preparing them to find employment is a known way to reduce the likelihood of reoffending…”
The same web pages show that 59% of UK prisoners who are sentenced to less than 12 months in prison go on to offend again but it needn’t be like this. In the Netherlands prisons are closing down because re-offending rates are so low.
Regrettably, however, prisons and prisoners face particular challenges when it comes to accessing and using digital technologies.
One of the most intractable is the fact that prisoners aren’t allowed internet access. This makes them wholly reliant on teaching staff when it comes to finding resources.
What’s more, even the most digitally skilled find themselves falling behind when they can’t get online to keep up with new techniques and new apps. The majority of the prisoners we spoke to are frustrated by this; they feel that supervised or restricted access would be a very positive step in the right direction.
But there is real cause for optimism. In the focus groups we conducted with prisoners we were encouraged to hear how positive many were, and interested to hear their very practical ideas for making things better.
We came away with the conclusion that there are some simple and effective digital technologies that prison authorities can adopt easily to bring about real improvements in prisoner education and outcomes. These include the following three areas:
Skype and other video chat apps
Research by the Prison Reform Trust and other organisations suggests that prisoners who keep in touch with friends and family while they are inside are many times less likely to find themselves back in trouble with the law after they have been released, but about 50% of prisoners lose that vital contact1 .
Enabling prisoners to have regular video chats in place of visits would save their friends the time, expense and upset that can make visiting impossible. It would also enable prisons to make better use of staff time – fewer personal visits means less time spent overseeing them.
Sadly, very many prisoners still struggle with basic literacy, but providing them with access to e-readers would encourage more of them to improve their reading skills.
Way cooler than a book and also more discreet, an e-reader makes it much harder for people to see if you are reading War and Peace or A Street Cat Named Bob. And now that e-readers cost in the region of just £30 to £40, this should be a cost-effective move.
A way of providing (admittedly limited) internet access for learners, the Virtual Campus is a virtual learning environment (VLE) that enables prisoners to find some resources for themselves and so empowers them to take more control of their learning. It’s available in some prisons already and is now being rolled out to more offender institutions (although in England only).
This will help to improve the current situation at least south of the border; too often, prisoners who are moved to a new institution by the authorities can find that their new prison does not, yet, enable them to access the Virtual Campus to continue their learning journey.
These days we’re spoiled for choice with the range of practical assistive technologies such as text-to-speech and graphic organisers that can help learners who have additional needs.
Many of them are available at no or low cost and it’s really a no-brainer to ensure that teaching staff understand the range of tools that they already have access to, as well as how to make the best use of them to enable learning for the high proportion of prison learners who have added difficulties such as dyslexia.
Find out more
One of the questions I was asked in the Q&A and also during the networking sessions at the conference was “where can we get help with making better use of digital technology in prisons?”
Our digital skills sector report (pdf), which is one of the key outputs from the, now complete, digital student project, offers some more details on the ideas I’ve highlighted here. It includes recommendations specific to offender institutions as well as others that are relevant to the wider adult learning and skills sector.
There are many resources on the Jisc website including this guide to enhancing the digital experience for skills learners. Jisc's national and regional customer services teams are also able to offer solutions tailored to your institution and its needs.
Keep an eye on the website for updates on work we’ll be doing with organisations such as the Education and Training Foundation to take this initiative forwards.
- 1 Keeping in Touch: The Case for Family Support Work in Prison, Nancy Loucks, 2005 - http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/KEEPING_IN_TOUCH...