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Reflecting on the Smart Prison

The past couple of months I have been travelling a lot, taking part in enriching conferences and other events. Yet most of all being inspired by many people and organisations who are engaged in correctional transformation. More and more people are not only convinced today’s prisons and correctional agencies can do better and strongly believe technology can help us with this enterprise.

Two years ago – together with Dr. Victoria Knight – we wrote an article on how digital innovation in corrections could take place by exploring the organisational challenges and the complex correctional ecosystem in which change is often very difficult. In this discussion we also made a case for better integration of technology within the entire organisation to create an innovative ecosystem that facilitates new ways of communication and more engaged collaboration with all stakeholders: with the offender, staff, management, external service providers, family, courts, police, victims, policy makers and the wider public.

Insights on how urban contexts become smart helped us understand how technology-based innovation management in corrections could be improved. Activities supporting this smartization process are performed through projects from a wide range of actors (known as an innovative ecosystem) collaborating within a network, with important contributions and participation of all beneficiaries.

Since this introduction of the smart prison concept, I have found myself in some complex and even sometimes fairly depressing conversations. Some of those have involved bold statements about the non-importance or even extreme danger of using technology in a correctional setting with scant detail about what that actually means or even why it would be such a bad thing. It is clear fear and anxiety are part of this topic and this in itself presents a number of ethical and moral dilemmas in this landscape.

The perception of using technology in a prison context is still often unnuanced and embedded in stories of incidents and threats which enforces the overall fear to move prisons into the 21th century digital society. When googling the Hong Kong Smart Prison project for example you’ll find articles describing it as a full-blown Orwellian nightmare whilst during my visit I was impressed by it as a well thought-through and engaging project to use technology for the good: improving efficiency, security and rehabilitation in a balanced way. Targeting sustainable development and better quality of life for their citizens, the initiators of Hong Kong’s Smart City project have understood that both physical and virtual walls of prisons can be broken down to create a more efficient and engaging environment for staff to work in and to reconnect offenders with the outside world, help them prepare for release in a digital society without loosing control and security. By using new technologies to engage staff, offenders and the entire community the prison, the staff and the offenders can become a part of the Smart City. Afterall the prison is part of the city like our schools and hospitals. This attempt to include prisoners and staff in the digital community is worthy of our questioning.

Obviously this project also has its challenges and will bring difficulties and risks towards the surface. When using technology there will always be unintended consequences. I don’t want to wave away the complexity of using technology, nor the risks related to it. To innovate and improve what we are doing will always be a risk-taking journey. And with new technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics being currently trialled in correctional contexts, there is an even bigger need today to start the conversation with an open mind on how we can use them for the good.

Implementing technology just for the sake of the innovation label is flawed and limited. Equally accepting doom scenarios and nightmarish vision is also compromising. I am in a privileged position to bring my practice experience and access to digital intervention journeys across the globe to accumulate valuable and evidence based knowledge to corrections. In doing so I will be involved in research and evaluations to test and challenge my knowledge. Using technology in corrections for the good with a strong focus on digital rehabilitation is a destination I am committed to and I’m convinced that the approach to include the voices of all stakeholders into practice development is crucial to the Smart Prison enterprise.

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