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Is it good to use technology in corrections?

Yesterday, the International Network for Criminal Justice organised a webinar on Digitisation & Human Rights in Prisons and gave Dr. Victoria Knight and myself the opportunity to share with an International Audience our work on ethical principles for digital rehabilitation.

Developing ethical principles is difficult without asking first of all the fundamental question: why should we? What is driving the idea of using technology and moreover, giving offenders access to digital services? is it good to use technology in corrections? Is it inevitable, a moral obligation?

Although for some this could seem a very awkward question, when reading through many literature on technology in society or in corrections, many introductions begin with the premise that technology is rapidly changing – a fact we can hardly deny – but conclude with an immediate consequence that we need to follow this evolution by adapting.

But why should we?.... Especially in prisons…??

If we look to technology as such, the first argument we could think of is a pure instrumental one:

If we believe technology can help us to improve the way we are doing our jobs, it’s wise to carefully thing how it could do that. We should then analyze how this could be achieved, reflecting carefully on what would be the best approach and measuring if it is really helping us achieving our objectives… the moral driver here is to do a good job, not to use technology.

But if we take a little bit more distance from this pure instrumental view and have a look at the broader picture, if we don’t look at technology as a neutral instrument but analyse the entire context where it is used and digitalisation is happening, we see a complete different reality:

The often disruptive character of digitalisation is not so much related to the technology by itself. It origin comes from the fact that technology changes society by changing our environments to which we in turn need to adapt.

And it’s from understanding and accepting this new reality, this new normal that we realize there are more fundamental moral drivers that justify why we should adopt to technology in corrections:

If we have the ambition, if we believe that one of us “raison d’être” is the rehabilitation of offenders or maybe put this in the context of more recent desistance theories: if we want to create an environment where offenders can be motivated and prepared to return to a live without crime , this environment should enable and support the process to return into a changing, a digital society.

However, if we don’t believe technology could help us doing this, if we believe we can develop digital skills from reading paper books, showing a slide deck with nice pictures on how the internet looks like and prefer to continue using or – like is currently happening in many prisons – desperately trying to keep alive, or even reanimate analogue delivery models of services, I don’t see a real obligation to use technology.

The obligation to prepare offenders for a release into a digital society does contains a moral obligation…. but it doesn’t tell us to give inmates a tablet or let them us the internet. It just tells us we need to find ways to prepare offenders to survive in this techy society, but not on how we could achieve this.

Though… I’m strongly convinced this – still omnipresent conservative attitude is far from normal….As a second moral driver I strongly believe the principle of Normality is really important and relevant to be added here. The principle of Normality is best known by how it has been implemented in the Norwegian Correctional System and translated in how the most recent prisons in Norway and some other countries are designed, creating more human environments, using colors and building materials we know outside…. Halden prison is very well know and even popular on Netflix and pictures of their apartments instead of cells are shared all over the world…But it is much more than those nice looking prisons or jails:

Implementing the principle of Normality would imply clear and transparent arguments for every denial to offenders of any right other than the deprivation of liberty. It clearly states that life in prisons resembles life outside as much as possible.

And this brings us closer to the concept of Human Rights:

The question of human rights in the context of the digital access in the prison has already emerged in legal proceedings. Legal cases labour the reality of deprivation for serving prisoners – that they are actively denied access to information and services. Cases have been brought to courts to determine the communicative rights of serving prisoners and their rights to access information. This is an ongoing debate in many western countries and the European Court of Human Rights already has pronounced that the prison service needs to find solutions (which does not mean giving open internet access) to guarantee access to information and also in the context of education!

In this context it is also important to acknowledge the digital divide that origins from the deprivation to the digital and could be interpreted as a violence on the non-discrimination statements in the human rights declaration.

I am not a legal expert, so maybe it is better to stay in my comfort zone by saying it is harmful to deprive people from communication and information technologies…a statement that probably has never been so clear as today during the COVID-19 crisis.

And to end this quick summary on moral drivers, it is just more and more evident that it is good, useful, to introduce and add digital services into prisons. It is more and more proven to be helpful.

A lot of fear is related to this topic. There are risk we will not deny, and a lot of technology has been brought in the criminal justice, not only for the best reasons. Technology can be a treat for human rights, privacy, dignity, ….

Sometimes this results in a to polarized discussion….. Better then human? Man, or machine? This is not a constructive way of anticipating reality. Technology has the power to make good things better but also to make bad things worse. To help corrections avoid the latter, Dr. Victoria Knight an myself have started to develop a framework, based on a set of ethical principles. This is still ongoing work, of which a start already has been published here.

However, this is collaborative work and I’m glad IN-CJ and many other organisations are currently supporting this, helping to keep the conversation going. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for feedback!

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