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Normalising Prisoner Communication

In a recent study researchers from HMPPS explored the use of smuggled mobile phones in prison and examined the views of both prison staff and prisoners themselves on why and how prisoners increasingly use mobiles inside. The authors, Anna Ellison, Martin Coates, Sarah Pike, Wendy Smith-Yau & Robin Moore focussed on three key questions:

1) What drives the demand for mobile phones within prisons – how much is for maintaining family contact and how much is for other more criminal purposes.

2) Are certain types of prisoners more likely to want a mobile phone and so drive demand in particular establishments?

3) Which non-technical factors could be most effective (and cost effective) in reducing both the supply and demand for mobile phones in prison (including ways of counteracting the prison economy that surrounds the use of mobile phones)?

On his blog post, Russel Webster highlights the main findings, confirming the impact the possession of phones has on life in prisons, the continuity of criminal behavior and sustaining a culture of power and violence.

But the research also points once again that, given the limitations of the legitimate phone system and the tension and violence associated with disputes around access to it, the presence of mobile phones in prisons worked to moderate the potential for violent confrontation between prisoners. The Prisoners from the research stated that for most prisoners the primary driver of mobile phone use was social, shaped by the human need for communication with loved ones and the desire to maintain and sustain meaningful relationships.

The first installation of in-cell telephones in the prison of Marche en Famenne in Belgium in 2013 showed that more normalized communications with loved ones can reduce the frustration around the barriers to communicate with them which also resulted in an important reduction of violence in the facility. A positive evaluation of this pilot resulted in the government’s decision to install a telephone in every prison cell, a decision that recently also has been taken by the French Prison Service.

Many different experiences and research around the world showed the importance of prisoners staying in touch with their families & friends. Giving them access to a telephone in their cell so they can call – within certain security limits– whenever they want, could be seen as an important step towards normalizing prisoner communication. But installing those systems in every cell as such will not necessary lead to this: in this article, François Bès from the International Prisons Observatory in France, warns that the expensive telephone rates related on using this fixed phone could also demotivate prisoners to use it and create even more frustration.

Similar reactions and information about the telephone rates in France can be heard in many other countries, with the fight against the prison phone industry in the US being exemplary. In this it would be far too easy to target the private companies who are currently charging those rates, as the responsibility of regulating and tendering for what is really needed, is still entirely up to the government. An investment into offender-focused technical infrastructure could serve a much broader goal then normalizing prisoner communications only, if it would be part of an integrated digital strategy. We doubt that installing in-cell phones in a way that the majority of the prison population cannot afford to use them, will reduce the number of smuggled phones nor could it be called normal.

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