18 May 2021

Why the Future of Smart Prisons is closer than you think

Guest blog: Katie Taffler, UK Justice Growth & Strategy Lead at Accenture as part of our #DigitalJustice2021 week

Imagine a world where…

  • …prisons have networked systems of CCTV cameras, sensors and connected devices capable of monitoring and analysing prison operations and activities in real-time. This would identify suspicious or unusual activity within the prison or alert personnel to perimeter security breaches, giving authorities the grounded insight they need to better inform targeted interventions and help shape policy decisions.
  • …prison authorities and justice system stakeholders are able to collaborate and share data across the whole system, using AI and machine learning to inform operational decision making and to identify the welfare and training needs of both inmates and employees.

It sounds futuristic, but technology like this is already being deployed in other areas of the criminal justice system as well as in a number of countries’ prison systems round the world, where it’s helping transform operations and deliver better outcomes for service users including both prisoners and staff.

In the UK, over the last year, the Covid-19 pandemic brought with it an urgent and new need to transform how prisons operate. Many organisations rose to the challenge, implementing innovative ways of working and managing inmate welfare during an unprecedented public health emergency. This includes HMPPS; however, if prisons are to meet targets and remain focused on rehabilitation, the big-thinking, innovation hungry mindset needs to remain longer term.

These challenges Prisons felt during the pandemic were significant. There was a 150% rise in the rate of self-harm cases within prison populations between 2010 – 2020; stress also seems to be a big problem for prison officers, with more than 2,000 taking stress related leave in 2019 according to one BBC freedom of information request. Equally, the 227% rise in the rate of assaults on staff between 2010 - 2020 and the 155% increase in the number of prisoners serving sentences for terrorism related offences between 2013-202 present a growing challenge to the safety of everyone who lives and works in the prison system.

To address these issues, we should be enabling increased collaboration across the whole justice system to ensure better outcomes for prisoners and personnel alike. Technology must play a major role in this process and some forward-thinking prisons are already deploying new technologies to enhance operations and deliver better outcomes for all, but this is far from uniform. Expanding adoption with a future-focused and innovation mindset is essential. 

One area that could be particularly impactful is the use of data analytics that could enable enhanced management oversight and provide a better understanding of organisational data. This could help leaders to respond more quickly and effectively to personnel and inmate needs. For example, enhanced analysis could identify indicators that could help recognise inmates that are at risk of self-harm.

Another area is video analytics. Sophisticated computer algorithms could analyse CCTV footage against predefined rules to alert officers and higher management to unusual patterns of behaviour or movements by inmates, visitors and employees. This could help monitor crowd behaviour patterns within common spaces or use facial recognition capabilities to identify and prevent harm to prisoners and staff or intervene proactively in potential criminal or extremist activity. It could also be applied to detecting contraband or threatening items such as shanks, phones and drugs.

Importantly, these systems wouldn’t necessarily require major investment. Prisons already have extensive CCTV networks that video analytics technology could be easily built on top of. And data is often already being collected, it just isn’t being used in an integrated way to provide intelligence to aid decision making into better rehabilitative care.

There are already plenty of examples from across the criminal justice system of how these technologies are being used to drive change and enhance management oversight of operations. The West Midlands Police is a case in point. Their frontline officers are now able to benefit from the latest insight and analysis straight from their mobile phones. Whilst this has been enabled by the latest technology, the big differentiator is the human centred approach to deploying it. The team that worked on the project included officers and staff from across the organisation throughout the design and development process. Just as importantly, the project includes an ethics panel to ensure that the deployment of technologies like machine learning and automation adhere to the highest standards.

A similar approach in prisons will be key. Technology should be designed, developed and deployed in collaboration with frontline staff and prisoners themselves. It should connect with the wider criminal justice system. And it should embody the highest ethical standards in both design and use. Success will ultimately help deliver a better working and living environment within prisons, help lower rates of recidivism among prison leavers and create a safer society for all.

Katie Taffler

UK Justice Growth & Strategy Lead; Accenture

With thanks to Jess Flannigan and Tom Whittaker for research and input via the Accenture Smart Prisons POV

Georgie Henley

Georgie Henley

Head of Justice and Emergency Services, techUK