I have the impression that the number of published articles and opinions on the use of technology in prisons is increasing. Not surprisingly a majority of those are addressing technologies such as Data Analytics or Artificial Intelligence, supported by specific technologies that embody a security and control function such as all kind of monitoring sensors or tracking devices. However, opinions on the value of using those ‘SMART’ technologies are very different: from a “full-blown Orwellian nightmare” towards a way to increase efficiency and safety from intake to release or to create safer places for inmates and guards alike. Most of those are questioning how and if it is good to use technologies to monitor, measure, control, surveillance the ‘object’ or how far we can go in taking away all privacy of people for the purpose of safety and efficiency.
In a recent reflexion on the ethical aspects using technology, we have emphasised the importance that any use of technology should avoid further extending harm to the prisoner experience. Technology should minimise harm and assist with rehabilitative outcomes, both aspects which are to often seen as secondary effects in stead of getting primary focus.
The term ‘SMART’ is loaded with different meanings depending on the context it is used. Smart refers to more user-friendly experience, empowering users and increased user participation as promoted by marketeers (e.g., smart phones, social media), whilst governments and public agencies at all levels are embracing the notion of smartness to distinguish their new policies, strategies, and programmes for targeting sustainable development, sound economic growth, and better quality of life for their citizens (1). From a more technological perspective smart refers to intelligent-acting products and services, artificial intelligence, and thinking machines (2) as well as all kind of self-servicing computing principles used into systems: smart homes, smart buildings, and smart area’s like airports, hospitals or university campuses.
Regardless on what perspective we take, smart always includes both active user involvement and targeting a better society. If prisons have the ambition, if they believe that one of their “raison d’être” is to support a better and safer society they should take effort to prepare their prisoners to return to it. When thinking about using technologies to support this objective I agree with the authors of this article that "we should consider the costs and benefits of developing certain kinds of smart-prison tech that might ease certain burdens on human staff and augment their ability to provide safety, support, and education to inmates".
However, to become smart we should be more ambitious then only use technology to ease certain burdens on staff. By giving prisoners access to technology, including them in the development of those digital interventions, use technology to tailor, improve and make treatment and programs meaningful, to give prisoners more freedom and responsibilities, to let prisoners use the technology we use outside, we could empower them to work and prepare themselves for release in a digital society.
There is nothing smart on using smart technologies as such, nor on implementing technologies in prison that only target security and efficiency, extending harm to the prisoner. We should more invest in technology with a primary focus on care and rehabilitation, evaluating ‘security threats or benefits’ as potential secondary effects instead of investing fortunes on technology for security and control and evaluating ‘potential harm’ as a secondary effect or invest only leftovers into technology that supports care, education and rehabilitation.
(1) Center on Governance (2003) SmartCapital Evaluation Guidelines Report: Performance Measurement and Assessment of SmartCapital. Ottawa, Canada: University of Ottawa
(2) Moser, M. A. (2001). What is smart about the smart communities movement. EJournal, 10, 11(1), 1-11.