New Techs & penitentiary environment: using technologies to improve prison living conditions (2/2)

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Mother Jones Illustration.

New technologies introduced in the prison environment are improving not only the working conditions of staff but also the lives of prisoners and their rights, often mistreated.

The telemedicine in prison:

The development of telemedicine in prison provides prisoners with remote access to medical care. This device includes at least a high definition camera and an audio device. It may also include specialized equipment such as connected lenses or polarized lights. The presence of a nurse on site is also necessary. In France, this system has been implemented at the central house of Ensisheim (Haut-Rhin).

This type of system ensures access to health care for inmates.

Videoconferencing in the judiciary system:

In the field of justice, since 2001 videoconferencing has been developed in France in the frame of criminal litigation at several stages of the proceedings. This system allows for a virtual presence of inmates at a trial through cameras and an audio system. Although it is becoming more democratic, this system raises questions about the respect of judicial ritual and requires adaptation of courtrooms.

However, it makes it possible to improve inmates’ access to justice, sometimes far from the physical location of their trial and when the organisation of their extraction is complicated.

Logistical improvement through the use of IT equipment:

Most of the technological tools are used to improve the logistics of prison management and prisoners’ daily lives. Some recent practices demonstrate this:

  • Use of tablets: this year, France launched test phases in several prisons providing prisoners with connected tablets that allow them to book visits, order canteens or reload accounts by families. The objective of the Ministry of Justice by 2022 is that all administrative exchanges between prisoners and the administration should be carried out via touch screens. This technology is widely used in the US in low-security and juvenile prisons. It allows access to eBooks, distance learning, chatting with their families, etc.
  • Prison cell allocation by AI: Algorithms are being developed to allow prisoners to be placed with the most appropriate co-detainees and to establish the optimal distance between cells. The issue of prisoner placement is an important issue in prison management. It can reduce the risk of conflict and harassment between prisoners and illegal business inside prisons.

Facial recognition for suicide prevention:

Suicide in prisons is a recurrent problem. According to the International Prison Observatory (l’Observatoire international des prisons), two thirds of deaths are due to suicide. France is one of the countries in the EU-15 with the highest suicide rate. In Canada, between 2006 and 2016, the number of suicides per 200,000 inmates was 92. These suicide rates are higher than those of a population with equal demographic characteristics.

The facial recognition systems and connected wristbands installed in Chinese prisons mentioned in the first part of this article also help to prevent the risk of suicide by analysing medical data, behaviour and the isolation of prisoners. 

The advantages of connected prisons:

  • Security: the various systems put in place make it possible to ensure better security for prisoners, guards and medical staff.
  • Protecting inmates from physical assaults.
  • Improving prison life: Access to computer tools can alleviate feelings of isolation, let alone depression and suicide, for some prisoners. These tools also allow them to continue their studies, which facilitates reintegration after prison.
  • Facilitates inmates’ access to information: both for communication with their families and lawyers and with prison staff.
  • Speed of request processing and objectivity: software improves the speed of request processing by automating it. This processing is then more objective (if the information taken into account by the algorithm is also objective).
  • Facilitates the work of logistics officers: decision-making by « a third party » (which is software) can soften the exchanges between prison staff and prisoners. In addition, guards can focus on more active tasks and interact with inmates.
  • Medium-term cost: Videoconferencing and remote consultation systems make it possible to avoid the costly process of extracting detainees.

Criticisms of connected prisons:

  • Data security: the use of digital tools implies a circulation of data that can potentially be hacked. Cybersecurity is therefore essential in the implementation of such technologies in prisons.
  • Embezzlement of inmates’ Internet access: access to computer equipment, even on an intranet, can be embezzled by prisoners. Indeed, more and more criminals in prison have significant computer skills and can use the equipment for criminal purposes. 
  • The short-term cost of high-tech equipment: investment in technological equipment can be high and the equipment is often damaged by prisoners. This is strongly criticized by the prison staff who consider that these funds could be invested to improve their own working conditions.

It is undeniable that the prison environment challenges the protection of the human rights of inmates and the introduction of new technologies in the penitentiary environment is changing practices and necessarily having an impact on prisoners’ rights. The use of technologies can improve the situation of prisoners, such as telemedicine or access to computer tools. But connected prisons can also raise important privacy issues, particularly with the increased surveillance of prisoners and the collection of personal data. Their implementation must therefore be done ethically.


Laeticia Dimanche

Master 2 Cyberjustice – Promotion 2018-2019

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