Smart Prisons Protect The Public And Rebuild Lives – Analysis


Prisons – known also as correctional services – complement law enforcement agencies in protecting the public by channeling criminals and security perpetrators such as terrorists into the processes of retribution, rehabilitation and reintegration. Megatrends such as transnational criminals and terrorists exploiting globalisation, new technologies reshaping the economy and jobs, and ageing population shifting the workforce can have long-term impact on the effectiveness of these processes.

More prisons around the world are hence exploring smart technologies – which utilise sensors, data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) – to support these processes and meet the challenges that emanate from the megatrends. These challenges include diverse and large inmate population, workforce constraints, greater focus on rehabilitation, and threats from within and outside the walls. By embracing smart technologies, prisons ride the wave of technological advances that are transforming how governments, industries and societies organise.

The benefits of smart technologies to prisons are manifold but like smart cities outside the walls, so are the associated practical issues. There are two overarching practical issues: the first is transforming operational practices and skills to harness the technology well for safe incarceration; the second is the need for checks and balances to support second chances.

Enabling Safe Incarceration

Prisons have to keep the prison community (inmates, families and prison officers) safe from illicit activities including violence, criminal groups’ recruitment and prison radicalisation. These activities if not contained will impede efforts to reform inmates and ultimately threaten the public. Smart technologies that analyse video and audio data can help enhance the security of prisons.

Smart CCTVs – which see and think – can function as robotic guards that regulate the movement of inmates, analyse data on physical features and behavioural patterns to gather better intelligence on suspicious activities. For example, the Altcourse Prison in United Kingdom is exploring this technology to detect contraband – brought in by either persons or drones – that will harm inmates and enable illicit activities. Audio surveillance systems – which hear and think – can analyse the inmates’ telephone conversations. For example, a prison in Midwest, United States (US) uses the technology to uncover clues of inmates’ involvement in illicit activities on the outside. Singapore, in keeping up with the Smart Nation goals, envisions a “prison without guards” where such technology enables prison officers to focus more time and effort on rehabilitating inmates.

Operational practices and skills are essential for harnessing smart technologies well and should keep pace with changes that technology may create in the prison environment. First, prisons have to anticipate both the positive and negative effects of technology on inmates’ behaviour, which may shift criminal tactics or attenuate the effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes. Second, prisons should share the intelligence gathered – on inmate behaviour and evolving criminal links – with law enforcement agencies to better preempt future crime and security threats to the public. Third, prisons have to monitor how technology affects the way their officers engage inmates during regular interactions. This is key to maintaining cooperation in the prison community for security and the human touch in rehabilitation.

Enabling Second Chances

Prisons have to maintain a humane environment that enables inmates to reform, learn life and work skills. Smart technologies can support the environment – within and outside the walls – that is key to inmates reintegrating successfully into the society hence reducing their likelihood of re-offending – recidivism.

Within the walls, data analytics systems that process inmates’ information more efficiently can serve two purposes: to assess their likelihood of re-offending and prescribe appropriate rehabilitation programmes, and to reduce exposure to negative influences by allocating inmates to the right cells and cellmates. For example, Singapore uses this technology to support rehabilitation given the focus on reintegration. Surveillance systems that monitor the inmates’ use of computers for learning purposes can help prison officers (and psychologists) assess inmates by understanding their developmental needs better and preempt threats by detecting clues of possible computer misuse.

Outside the walls, surveillance systems such as the experimental “Technological Incarceration Project” by Swinburne University can support home detention programmes for inmates of lower risk and for reducing prison congestion. The AI-enabled technology uses an electronic bracelet that can monitor an inmate’s movements and deliver an electrical shock if it assessed that a violation is imminent. This technology may be useful for regulating the activities of released terrorists.

Checks and balances by prison officers are essential for accuracy in AI-driven assessments of inmates, as the outcomes that follow have impact on their lives, their families and the society. For example, there were media reports of Compas – an AI system used in the US to inform parole decisions – assessing an inmate inaccurately hence resulting in him being incarcerated longer than necessary. An erosion of the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and ultimately the State may result. The Compas example demonstrates how the AI in smart technologies is not foolproof in understanding humans and how its users may not fully understand how it works.

Better Security but Keep the Human Touch

Smart technologies can potentially transform how prisons function and how society perceives incarceration in the future. The downstream effects on public security are likely to be positive. The public would experience lower crime rates with former inmates less likely to re-offend, or escalate to worse offences.

The effectiveness of smart prisons however goes beyond technology implementation and requires a strategy that incorporates continual research and response to address the associated practical issues. Prisons around the world – in embracing smart technologies – can learn from each other through existing platforms for regional and international cooperation. For example, Singapore’s current professional exchanges and cooperation with prisons from the Southeast Asian (ASEAN) states may benefit from the proposed ASEAN Smart Cities Network.

Most importantly, incarceration centers on changing human behaviour hence smart prisons should undergird and not undermine the human touch.

*V S Suguna is an Associate Research Fellow and Faizal A. Rahman is a Research Fellow with the Homeland Defence Programme at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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