Technology in Corrections – the Prague Conference, May 2017

The 2nd Technology in Corrections conference was held between 14th and 17th of May at the Pyramida Hotel in Prague. Richard West of MegaNexus was one of the FORINER representatives at the event, and gives his report on proceedings below.

 

To paraphrase a well-known English bard, if you lock 200 or so Corrections and Technology experts in a room for two days, eventually they will produce the script for technology in prisons and probations for the next ten years. Ok, not quite paraphrasing. And not quite the same result either.

The second Technology in Corrections Conference took place last week in Prague. A magnificent venue for what turned out to be an engaging and fascinating series of discussions. The title of the conference was ‘Challenges for the Future’. For many though, it seems those challenges are not in the future. They are here, and they are happening right now.

The reception evening took place in the beautiful Old Town Hall, a 14th Century building that has no doubt seen its own fair share of legal tussles down the centuries. Indeed, the main hall is dominated by two enormous wall-to-wall paintings by Vaclav Brozik: Master Jan Hus’s courageous defence before the council of Constance in 1415; and the second depicting a 14th Century courtroom adorned with the usual Renaissance-favoured weeping men and stern-looking clergy showing the sentence of Master Hus.

                                    

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was perhaps appropriate that many of the key decision makers in the corrections field from across Europe stood between the trial and the sentence to discuss just what should happen in the middle.

Of course, these magnificent paintings are from an earlier time and an earlier model of justice. And we were there to discuss the future.

Back in 2008, I attended a conference on transmedia in San Diego. At that conference were major players from technology giants across N.America, including Facebook and Google. The ideas, the concepts and even the technology on display at that conference was far ahead of that currently in use in prison systems today across Europe, and that was nearly ten years ago. The technology of the Future? Not quite – lets get the present up to speed first.

As the opening remarks from Mr Vladmir Zimmel, Deputy Minister for Criminal Justice in the Czech Republic stated – today we use technology for everything, from shopping to checking emails on the commute to work to social media.

So why is it that prisons seem so far behind?

Indicative of this is the use of social media. We cannot escape it, it has become a key part of our lives. Even if you think you are immune from the Facebook and Twitter generation, social media still plays a big role. Our shopping habits are oft dictated by the five-star reviews a product generates; our opinions on news items are frequently formed by the comments sections rather than the prose of the reporter; and so on.

On the first morning of the conference, on all the literature and plastered across banners and giant screens was the hashtag #correctionstech2017. (For those of you that don’t know, this is how you follow things on Twitter). By 5pm of that first day, that hashtag had been used a grand total of six times. This is despite over 200 people owning and fidgeting with smartphones in the room for over seven hours.

Of course, social media is not going to play a big part in the lives of a prisoner in a European prison – but for those in the room it does. And the question we have to ask is if we, as the custodians, do not utilise the technology we have to our full advantage, can we guide those who are in our care to do the same?

Imagine, for example, that the room had been filled with 200 ex-offenders. How many times do you suppose that hashtag would have been used then?

Amongst the panellists on day one was the Deputy Director General of the Probation Service for French Community Belgium. When asked how he felt the current state of technology in prisons was in his jurisdiction, his answer was stark.

“Not too long ago, we were in the stone age when it came to technology,” he said, “but things have changed. We have definitely improved. Now, we are probably in the iron age. There is clearly a long way to go.”

A long way to go indeed. Considering the sheer diversity of the technology on offer in the exhibition space, virtual reality and augmented reality included, this has to be a key consideration for not just the FORINER project, but for the introduction of technology to corrections in general. There is clearly an enormous challenge in introducing space-age tech to an iron-age environment.

To take the analogy a little further, what would iron-age man make a wearable-tech watch that measures the salt content of your blood and tells you how much sodium you are consuming? Comedic value and movie-making possibilities aside, this is a serious point. That iron-age man would not only not know what to do with it, it would be a totally alien concept to him. It would be a baffling and unimportant influence on his world.

Would the ‘technology of the future’ – an augmented reality or virtual reality solution have the same effect on a prisoner with little or no previous access to technology of any sort?

When it comes to technology, such leaps forward are inevitable. At the transmedia conference in San Diego, where Google and their peers were showcasing their advancements, there were (quite literally) queues of people waiting to invest. When it came to realising how much money could be made in a short term, there was no shortage of takers. When it comes to technology in corrections, however, the return on that investment seems a lot less tangible.

Of course, we know that it’s not. With better technology, better access to learning, better access to resources and support, the risk of recidivism is drastically reduced. The impact that a reduction in re-offending has on society is exponential. The problem is that it is not an instant fix. There are no quick returns. Convincing the prison authorities, the legislators, the Governors, the politicians, that correctional education and technology is a massive money-saving exercise is a whole different thing than convincing an investment banker that Google’s next enterprise might make them a few euros.

At a group discussion, Professor Victoria Knight, of De Montfort University, had an interesting take. She has conducted a number of surveys on these very challenges. “What we found,” she said, “was that the public are very much in favour of paying for technology in prisons for educational purposes, as long as there is a demonstrable result on rehabilitation.

“People don’t, however, know what actually happens in prisons. So there is a challenge not only to educate those within the prison walls but to educate those on the outside too. To show them just what a benefit education can be.”

For FORINER, this could be a key consideration. At the very least, it is a significant talking point as we move forward. FORINER I made some important and exciting strides in getting the technology needed into prisons, to those people who need it the most. As FORINER I moves into new and exciting next-steps, we perhaps need to cast our gaze to not just what happens within the prison walls, but what happens on the outside too.

The 200 or so decision makers stood between those breath-taking pictures in the Prague Old Town Hall last Monday take note – the challenges of the future are often the challenges of today. And if we recognise this, and we understand just what those challenges really are, then the future of technology in corrections and the effect it can have on society as a whole is very bright indeed.

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