10 stories for 10 miles: Story three

We ran 10 miles in October to raise money for our students. We are delighted to share another story of what your generosity enabled. This is Rosca’s story.


read Rosca’s story here

Help us to support more students by running 10 km with us in this year’s Town and Gown run in October in Cambridge. Sign up here: Click onto ‘join a team’ and look for the Learning Together team!


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Reflecting on Learning Together: Roehampton & HMP Belmarsh

The first prison I ever visited was HMP Belmarsh, a Cat A estate on the outskirts of London. I was taken there by my Head of Department, Finola Farrant, whose work and research with people who have been through the prison sector meant that she was reassuringly comfortable with the process of fingerprinting, photographing, airport style security and pat downs that preceded our meeting with the then-Head of Learning and Skills in HMP Belmarsh, Sharon Rowley. This was 2016 and marked the beginning of my convenorship of the Learning Together initiative between the University of Roehampton and HMP Belmarsh, delivering an accredited module to 20 students, 10 based at the University of Roehampton, and 10 based in HMP Belmarsh. The module is part of our third year Criminology programme and entitled, “Understanding Justice” and explores both the philosophical reasons for punishment and real-world examples of how punishment can, and cannot, be justified.

On that first visit, I was struck by how mundane and intimidating Belmarsh managed to be, simultaneously combining the blandness of the total institution with the tension of high levels of security and architecture of risk. Yet after the third, fourth or fifth time of visiting for the teaching of the Learning Together module, the first impression faded under the weight of preparing and delivering class, getting there on time, remembering to search out prohibited items from my work bag before setting off – the thousand small items from USB sticks to spoons, chewing gum that could trigger a warning from security at the front gate. The small details overwhelmed the larger environment.

For the module itself, I was keen to involve as many of the teaching staff in the Department of Social Sciences that I could rope in. We were joined by Dr Finola Farrant to discuss narratives of justice; Dr Amanda Holt came to talk about how young people experience the criminal justice system; and Dr Jen Melvin brought her work on the local gacaca courts that were established after the genocide in Rwanda and the possibility of justice after genocide. The four of us, myself and the three guest lecturers, met at the end of the module to discuss the experience and reflect on what we could draw from it for teaching and learning both in prisons but also in the University.  This blog is a synthesis of our discussion, reworked by my reflection on that discussion and so may not quite be what my colleagues remember. However, I hope in sharing it I can share some sense of what makes lecturing in prisons different, and why environment makes such a difference to the act of teaching.

It was by coincidence rather than design that all the lecturers who participated on the module are women, and that the prison itself is a male estate. All four of us reflected on their position as women in positions of relative power in a male estate, and the rareness of teaching a male-majority classroom. Most students enrolled in Criminology and Sociology at Roehampton are female, so the experience of a male dominated classroom is, for us, unusual, and more so within the notably more ‘masculine’ environment of the prison estate. The University emphasis on collaboration, sharing and the day-to-day acceptance of the value of education and pastoral care, forms a taken-for-granted backdrop in our workplace in a powerful, invisible set of normative structures. I wonder if these University norms don’t map onto some of those gendered ideas of ‘femininity’ that we live with daily. Certainly, the feminisation of higher education has been noted often enough both by the academy itself and the press.

By contrast, working within the prison brought into play an environment that feels markedly masculine, for all that many of the NOMS staff and officers I met were women. The prison presented stark power differentials between staff and those incarcerated, routinised segregation and separation, and the visible humdrum backdrop of security-over-all-else establishes a different dynamic within which to work. The thin veneer of “University” that we brought in with us through the gates, flimsily embodied in print outs, pens and notepads, jarred gently and provocatively at the jangling keys and barred windows.  Our teaching space in HMP Belmarsh is the prison chapel, giving an additional, unsettled layer of institutional set of norms to Prison and University as we sat and discussed injustice under a suspended figure of Christ. Within this three-way share of the environment between University, Prison and Church, to speak of justification of punishment became at times cautious, careful not to transgress the Prison’s rules; at times poignant in speaking of lex talonis and the ‘eye for an eye’ examples of retribution common to the Old Testament and Kantian philosophy; and at times arcane, saturated in generations of scholarship which question the foundations of what we understand to be common sensical. The institutional array was tangential but influential on the discussions we had, rarely spoken but always felt.

Learning is sometimes described as a window, or an escape. It is my hope that providing accredited HE level opportunities within prisons we do offer an escape route of a sort. But it is my deeper hope that those whom we left behind each week inside will be able to return us the favour, in time, and join us on campus. If they bring a thin veneer of “Prison”, embodied in the individual themselves and in their files and records, then so be it. What Learning Together can do, uniquely, is blend and layer, and so enrich both institutions beyond measure.

By Dr Alison Lamont, University of Roehampton

The University Legal Centre at the University of Buenos Aires by Alejandro

In November 2018 Learning Together travelled to Buenos Aires to visit other prison university partnerships to explore new and exciting ways of working between these institutions, and share experiences and best practice. As part of this trip, directors Dr Ruth Armstrong and Dr Amy Ludlow visited the University of Buenos Aires Centre within Devoto Prison . During the visit, they met people serving prison sentences who were running a legal centre within the prison where students from the university were working alongside students within the prison. Following the trip, we were keen to share the work of those working in the centre, so we asked them to tell us more about the project. This is what they wrote…


The University Legal Centre in Devoto prison is a space created by the residents, for the residents. Its fundamental purpose is as a legal support service for people in prison. The legal service has existed since the UBA Centre, Centre Universidad Devoto (CUD), was established in 1986. Since 2010 the legal service has been named after Horacio Rojo, who was killed by Argentina’s Federal Police in an alleged confrontation which resulted in him being shot seven times in the back. The centre was named in honour of his role in the CUD and his commitment to fighting for those deprived of their rights and liberties.

The centre is entirely responsive to the needs of the community, meaning that it can look very different on any given day. Residents attend with their queries and those working there investigate, and respond to, their concerns. The issues can be as simple as helping them to understand the progress of a complaint or case, accessing the legal services available to them, or helping them to communicate with lawyers.

Ruth and Amy presentation whole room 2

The centre’s practice is constantly developing through new and diverse legal problems brought up by the residents. The goal is always to give the most complete advice, equipping residents with all the tools they need to find solutions to their queries. In many cases, residents do not have clear information about their legal situation. Advisors help them to work through what they can remember, sometimes reconstructing cases and events and gathering the information necessary for their cases to progress.

In the federal system of Argentina and the city of Buenos Aires, the legal system has a mixed structure, where cases combine oral debate and advocacy, with procedural, investigative and written application stages. The centre does not provide advocates for the oral stages, but provides assistance for all other elements of the criminal process. We support them with parole processes, appeals, sentencing matters , habeas corpus applications, evidence requests, dismissals and more.

The service exists as an independent entity and is not funded by the Law school. It was created in order for residents to help one another, so that they might be less vulnerable to the complex nature of the criminal legal process. However, each week the service is delivered by student volunteers from the law school, working alongside ten ‘inmate’ volunteers.

Ruth and Amy presentation 2

The experience allows law students to gain first-hand experience of legal practice. They are able to gain knowledge of a range of tribunals and jurisdictions within the legal system. Students may even be working on complex appeal cases that progress all the way to the Supreme Court. For those working at the service this is extremely rewarding, and offers a diversity of experience difficult to achieve early in a legal career.

The centre is now able to visit different wings in the prison to provide advice. This means some matters can be resolved quickly without resorting to written applications

In the CUD legal centre, legal process is studied alongside developing skills of client-care and interviewing, giving a real-world grounding to legal theory. For example, in a habeas corpus case a student will need to identify which information is essential to demonstrate injury, they will need to prepare for depositions, follow the trial, understand what evidence will be needed for an appeal and be attentive to all deadlines and time restrictions.

The key aim of the Legal Counselling Service is to capacitate those with real-life experience of the law to offer support to others in a similar situation, and to give residents the opportunity to do something meaningful and gain knowledge during their time studying at the Centre Universidad Devoto.

drawing - argentina

Drawing of Ruth and Amy presenting at The University Legal Centre by a Devoto prison resident

Visiting Learning Together, by Esther Montero Pérez de Tudela

On November 2018, I had the opportunity to visit the Learning Together project. As a jurist of the Spanish Penitentiary System and a treatment professional I have 10 years experience working in prisons. I am also a professor at the University Loyola Andalucía (Doctor in Criminology), therefore, I was really interested to learn how this project worked, and understand its impact on the prison based students’ progression, such as: changes in their way of thinking, behaviour, and social skills. I was also interested to understand the effect on the university-based students, for example their skills, knowledge about the prison system, prejudices and so on.

From 26th to 30th November 2018 I visited the Learning Together project, participating in round tables and meetings, and visiting prison-university partnerships. Especially interesting for me was a visit to HMP Warren Hill to participate in The Butler Law Course, and a round-table event which took place at the Institute of Criminology the last day of my visit in Cambridge.

During my visit to HMP Warren Hill, I attended the fantastic law course taught by Jack Merritt. Above all else, I experienced people serving long-sentences being able to express themselves in an academic way, to participate in a law course as ‘just another student’, to develop their critical thinking, to cultivate their abilities, and discuss their ideas with a huge respect for the ideas of others. It felt like rehabilitation in action. The university-based students handled the situation very well: engaging in discussion groups, supporting everybody’s ideas, and helping others to express themselves. The group was built upon respect for one another, empathy and a shared commitment to openness.

The Spanish Penitentiary System

The main goal of Spanish prisons is to re-educate and reintegrate offenders back into society. The Spanish Penitentiary System is based on a ‘scientific individualization principle’, which means that we focus on an individualized treatment program for each inmate. The system is divided into three ‘degrees’ or regimes: first degree (dedicated to most dangerous offenders), second degree (open to the vast majority of prisoners, characterized by more freedom of movement inside the prison and the availability of many activities) and the third degree or ‘open regime’ (in which the offender has a great room of freedom and can work outside and just sleep some nights in a social reintegration center, a kind of ‘open prison’). Education plays an important role in the Spanish system; for example, basic skills education is a priority for the people without those qualifications. The inmates have access to school, professional training and to the Open University.

In addition, it is a central feature of our system that offenders remain part of society while completing their sentence. To be deprived of liberty doesn’t mean that the people in prison are ‘out’ of the community. Therefore, collaboration with external organisations is highly valued in the Spanish system. NGOs and voluntary work play a very important role, as does collaboration with universities. In this sense, the Learning Together model fits very well in the Spanish penitentiary environment.

My previous thinking: a critical vision

The Learning Together project is based on three theoretical perspectives: an educational perspective (focused on how education can help people reach their potential), a sociological perspective (focused on reducing stigma and prejudice through inter-group contact) and a criminological perspective (focused on the reconstruction of a positive identity to desist from crime).

Taking into account this starting point, I envisaged three kinds of risks at the beginning of my trip. First, relating to learning theories and the differential association theory (in brief: “we learn from conduct patterns and we learn from others”), what happens if the university students take bad habits from the prison students?

From the point of view of anomic and subculture theories, specifically, the ‘frustration status of Cohen’: what happens if the prison students compare their own situation, their reality, with the privileged situation of the university students? Might they experience some kind of jealousy, envy or frustration?

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the results I observed were just the opposite. The prison students admitted feeling comfortable with the university students, in fact, their interactions seemed to have improved their self-perception, they had learnt new patterns of behaviour and they were proud of their achievements. The university students already had significant skills in critical analysis, but far from having acquired any bad habits, they helped others to develop pro-social attitudes as well as improving their own attitudes. Consequently, their view about people in prison changed significantly and they spoke about their fellow students with a great humanity. Both sets of students had developed their skills, capacities and critical thinking, and reduced their prejudices.

My response: a positive evaluation

On Friday 30th November I had the opportunity to discuss my ideas and experiences at a round-table event at the Institute of Criminology. The session was titled “Learning Together – Towards an International Community of Theory, Practice and Evidence”. Reflecting on the event, I believe that all of the results of the Learning Together Project are positive. In my opinion, the opportunity for students in prison to spend time with students from university gives them an opportunity to reduce their prejudices, to adopt positive behaviour patterns, to learn new abilities, to feel significant and to be taken into consideration and listened to. To spend time with students from the prison is positive for university students, giving them the opportunity to interact with the human being behind the label of “offender” and to develop their own skills. The experience also allows them to open their minds and to develop their personal perspectives on empathy and the humanity.


Conclusion: look to the future

I can only conclude with enthusiasm. Having seen the results, my objective is to implement the Learning Together model in my country. The Learning Together Network has grown considerably already and I am excited to see how it works in another cultural environment… will we have the same results in the south of Spain?

If all goes to plan, we will have the opportunity to discuss this topic again next November, when we finish our first criminology course in prison!

Long Read: Technology and Public Sector Prisons

This week we bring you a long read, an essay written by one of our fantastic Learning Together students, currently resident in prison, who prefers to remain anonymous. 

‘Does the reluctance to introduce new forms of technology to improve prisoner interaction with the outside world protect society or place it at risk?’

As a life sentence prisoner, who has spent over thirteen years in the English prison system, my experience of recent technological advances in society has been limited; but limited only to an extent, because some of those technologies have nevertheless found their way into prisons. These include mobile phones, Smart phones, Wi-Fi enabled devices, USB sticks, SD cards, readers, and various other technologies. Such items are banned in prisons and, in my opinion, for good reason; their misuse can lead to chaos, violence and even fatalities. They also have a detrimental effect on rehabilitation and pose a risk to the public. Yet although prison authorities have been engaged in an ongoing battle to find and confiscate unauthorised technologies (15,000 mobile phones and SIM cards were confiscated in English and Welsh prisons in 2017, equivalent to one for every six prisoners), their influx and proliferation in some prisons has been so relentless that some governors appear to have given up hope of complete eradication and have settled on managing the situation. This suggests that, despite the best efforts of governors and staff, physical security measures alone cannot win the battle.

In order to regain some control over unauthorised technology, I believe part of the solution lies in investing in more technology, albeit in secure and authorised forms. However, before meaningful change can happen, it will first require a fundamental shift in the mind-set of those with strategic oversight of public-sector prisons. In attempting to illustrate these points and encourage people to think more creatively about how technology might be used in prisons and its potential benefits and outcomes, I propose to share some thoughts in answer to the following five questions:

  1. Why are our prisons full of phones and other unauthorised technologies?
  2. What are the costs and consequences of unauthorised technology?
  3. What are the possible solutions?
  4. What might be the outcome of fewer phones and other unauthorised technologies?
  5. What might be the outcome of new and improved technology?
  • Conclusion
  1. Why are our prisons full of phones and other unauthorised technologies?

Compared to the revolution in IT that has taken place in society, when it comes to technological upgrades in public-sector prisons (which hold about 75% of the prison population), very little has changed. The same landline phone-boxes, which have been in place for the previous twenty years, have not even changed appearance, let alone seen a reduction in call charges. At 11p per minute, they are probably the costliest in the UK (Calls to mobile phones cost approximately 69p per minute). With the weekly wage for prisoners averaging at £8 per week, there are genuine limits to how far this can go when using prison facilities. Video conference technology is used in some prisons but solely for official procedures. An intranet system (called Virtual Campus) exists for distance learning and resettlement purposes but is greatly limited in content and relevance; and while someone can email a prisoner using an authorized email service (which is still received by the prisoner on paper printouts), there is no provision to email back in the vast majority of prisons.

Ever aware of the technological advances in society and the lower prices that accompany it, prisoners have relentlessly campaigned over the years, via different forums (i.e. prisoner councils, rep meetings), to prison governors for access to better and cheaper communication services (for domestic and legal purposes), facilities for viewing and ordering approved items, and internet access for research and educational purposes, etc. These are not just personal desires; they are officially encouraged because of the rehabilitative effects that result from, for example, strong family ties and engaging in education. Yet the pace of progress has been painstakingly slow or even in retreat in some respects. Prison service officials are wary of technology and have become extremely reluctant to offer any more than that which already exists.

And there are valid reasons for this refusal to provide better resources. Prison ministers and governors are fearful that any technology which allows prisoners access to the internet or direct contact with the public will be somehow compromised or circumvented, resulting in a security breach or, much worse, a serious crime. What could be worse than introducing a new piece of technology and it being used by a prisoner to contact a victim or commit an offence, an incident that could attract a mocking headline from a newspaper like the Daily Mail? So, the disparity between the rapid advancement of technology in society and its highly moderated existence in prisons is based largely on reluctance from HMPPS and the MoJ, reluctance that itself is grounded in fear, fear that something might go wrong. After all, the primary function of a prison is to protect the public.

However, although limiting the application of technology in prisons seems like a perfectly sensible approach, I believe that this approach is in fact a central part of the problem underpinning many of the issues effecting today’s prison system, hindering progress on many fronts. Further still, that it created some of those issues in the first place. For example, as ICT advanced in society it inevitably surpassed the comparative forms of communication in prisons; during this period, however, prison facilities were left to effectively degrade into outdated and overpriced services (reaching a point where they could no longer interrelate with modern forms of communication in society). The ensuing imbalance that developed between internal and external technology thus had a counterproductive outcome: it created a gap in the market, rationalised the motive for filling it and helped advance the situation we have today. (For the purpose of this piece, I will define and label the motives of those who mostly or solely seek to use technology for legal purposes (even though they may break prison rules to achieve this) as ‘legitimate.’)

On the other hand, there will always be those in prisons with their own reasons for wanting to use unauthorised technology, irrespective of the motives defined above. These are drug dealers and organised criminals (and, to a lesser extent, drug users and other criminals). Mobile phones and other technologies have become indispensable to those who continue criminal activity in prison because they help make their operations (smuggling and trading illegal substances) easier and, more importantly, harder to detect. For this reason, drug dealers are now the main players in many of the tech-smuggling operations taking place in prisons across the nation. That said, although determined individuals and criminals groups will often seek to exploit weaknesses in systems, the flaws that exist in our prisons (those that enable them to smuggle and trade colossal amounts of drugs) have been handed to them on a plate. (For those who seek to obtain technology to commit further offences, including drug users (although both groups may have some legitimate aims) I will define and label their motives as ‘illegitimate.’) 

Although the above groups are collectively responsible for sustaining the influx and propagation of unauthorised technology in prisons, their motives for doing so are varied and not necessarily based on bad intentions. Nevertheless, despite the security measures in place to prevent contraband entering prisons, whether it is smuggled through visits or receptions, thrown over walls or fences, flown in by drones, brought in by staff, or transferred between establishments by prisoners, the main reasons they are full of phones and other technologies are overwhelmingly because of the objectives of both groups described above, made possible by poorly conceived policies on prison technology.

Additional considerations:

As previously defined, there are two separate groups of prisoners who sustain the influx and proliferation of unauthorised technology in the prison system, those with mostly or solely legitimate motives and those with mostly or solely illegitimate motives. An important detail worthy of note, however, is that neither group exists in isolation. To varying degrees, individuals from both groups rely on each other and interact on a daily basis, forming tech-networks in prisons which are perceptible to prisoners but highly obscure to prison authorities. This observation and distinction between prisoners’ motives is important because their ultimate separation could be one of the keys to a safer and more manageable prison population.

Another important consideration (although less central to this piece) is the distinctions between the prisoners who sit within the group of those with motives defined as illegitimate. Within this group there are two main categories: those who sell drugs for profit and those who purchase them for personal use. The inter-dependency that exists between these two sub-groups is incredibly strong because of the ‘wealth and power’ that can attained from the sale of drugs and the ‘control and influence’ of addiction itself. That is why, where technology is concerned, drug users are vital components for drug dealers in their smuggling and concealment strategies. Their inter-dependency is also why it remains a very difficult affiliation to break. So although it is a relationship which is not the primary focus of this piece, if the link between the legitimate and illegitimate groups can be broken, it would have a detrimental effect on the relationship between drug suppliers and drug users within the illegitimate group. Nevertheless, when talking about the link between the two main groups, the focus will largely be on the inter-dependency that has developed between those with legitimate motives and those in the illegitimate group minus the drug users.

Before moving on to possible solutions, it might be worth considering an example of how someone with legitimate aims might come to be dependent on criminal links (and vice versa) and subsequently drawn into a network that is not only damaging for the world in which they live, but potentially detrimental to the needs they are seeking to address in the first place. Such insights are necessary if we are to examine how parallel relationships can be deterred. A common example of how inter-dependency can occur is when the standard pressures of family life (maintaining a relationship and/or remaining in contact with your children so you can nurture them as they grow) arise. These pressures, constrained by the limited funds to spend on antiquated prison pay-phones and lacking any other authorized means, are often enough to tempt someone to seek out alternative solutions to fulfil their needs. And so, in order to achieve this, the easiest solution, because of availability and convenience, is to request a call from an associate or criminal entity, or maybe even acquire a mobile phone for personal use.

Like drug addiction, on experiencing the benefits, the individual with initial legitimate aims may start to become reliant and perhaps unwittingly begin to support the motives of a lender with criminal intent, possibly by agreeing to ‘look after’ (hide) the phone to obtain a free but regular call with family. In seeking to alleviate the pressures of family life or service some other legitimate need, the individual inadvertently buys into a subversive network, becomes more protective and secretive about it (including criminal networks or individuals) and, as a result, protects it from disruption by already stretched security measures. As the means to satisfy the need is now provided by a fellow prisoner and, evidently, not the state, the psychology of ‘Us and Them’ starts to play a more influential role. The criminal- or tech-network then has a more sympathetic or reliant component that ensures its longevity. So whether the purpose is to make a phone call to mum, send a photograph to your children or view the clothing range on a Hugo Boss website, these interactions occur on a daily basis, countless times across the prison system, sustaining thousands of tech-networks that have far reaching consequences.

2. What are the costs and consequences of unauthorised technology? 

Pre-mobile phones, all phone calls and contacts with the outside world were routinely monitored and recorded by prison phone systems, enabling a range of checks and balances to be applied. This not only allowed prison authorities to safeguard the public or deter the arrangement of contraband entering the system, it provided a means to capture anti-social or risk-related behaviour and, if necessary, apply additional safety measures or arrange interventions in the form of offending behaviour work. The arrival of mobile phones and other technologies in prisons have now rendered almost pointless one of the most important apparatus for protecting the public and ensuring the safety of staff and residents.

With mobile phones and other technologies at the disposal of almost every prisoner in the system, it is now possible to make unlimited, unmonitored calls or carry out illegal activities with near impunity. This includes small, medium and large-scale drug dealing, drug and phone smuggling, financial transactions, witness intimidation, victim harassment, downloading and/or viewing illegal or extremist material, and bullying and intimidation of fellow prisoners, to name just a few. Mobile phones have also made it possible to continue running, from a prison cell, criminal operations in the community, or (as has previously happened) order ‘hits’ on members of the public. Many deaths have also occurred in prisons as a result of ‘Spice’, the psychoactive substance that has flooded the prison system. The above is merely the tip of the iceberg, but it does highlight how unauthorised technology has not only become a communication, security-void option for virtually the entire population of the prison system, it has also enabled criminals, criminal networks and even extremism to grow in strength as a result. And it all comes down to the simple fact that prisoners, not the state, now own the better forms of communication with the outside world.

There are also wider costs to consider. While prisons are full of unauthorised technology, the chaos and resulting distractions are such that programmes for rehabilitating prisoners have a diminished affect. The violence and drugs, as well as the mind-altering material that is available on the internet (whether political, ideological, religious, etc.), are either psychologically damaging or absorb headspace to such an extent that less room is available for treatment and personal development. Without a solution, while prisoners retain access to unauthorised technology, to the extent that they currently do, the battle against the revolving door of crime will never achieve the outcomes that society deserves.

3. What are the possible solutions?  

At present, current methods for detecting and blocking the signals of mobile phones are not working as intended. Phone signal-blocking equipment is unusable where houses circle the perimeter of a prison (a common layout) and contacting a network provider to disconnect the number of a mobile phone which ‘might’ belong to a prisoner can only be attempted if the number is known (which is pointless, in any case, given the available number of SIM cards in the prison system). Relying on intelligence from the general prison population is limited because, as explored, it is counterproductive towards their legitimate aims. New technologies for detection and prevention will certainly come along but the arms race will continue because equivalent advances in technology will be used to evade or defeat the latest detection and prevention methods. One manufacturer of mobile phones has even developed a tiny phone called ‘Beat the Boss,’ a clever reference to a chair that has been designed to detect phones hidden inside someone’s body when they sit on it. The phone is thought to render the chairs useless.

Therefore, rather than relying on an arms race that might never be won, in order to retake control of the situation and provide a safe and decent environment where prison service objectives can be met, HMPPS and the MoJ need to alter their approach to the application of technology. The only response with any prospect of improving outcomes is to provide a range of up-to-date and adequate technologies that satisfy the legitimate needs of mainstream prisoners across England & Wales. With the right technologies, the vast majority of prisoners with legitimate needs (and some of those with less legitimate objectives) could be drawn away from unauthorised tech. This is not about making life more comfortable for prisoners, it is about striking a more pragmatic balance between prisons and society so that the public can be protected against the less-friendly forces of the prison system while allowing prison authorities to regain an element of control so that prisoners can be rehabilitated and safely reintroduced to society at the end of their sentence.

Some of the areas in prison communications and internal/external interaction that need addressing are listed below, along with some ideas and implications. The suggested list, however, is not exhaustive, since the possibilities of technology and innovation are limitless and beyond the technical knowledge of the author. Besides, I propose that it is for government (in collaboration with prisoner focus groups) to work with industries (particularly around communications and internet access) to develop technological solutions, solutions that are safe, relevant and meet the needs of prisoners.

  • In-cell phones, with affordable rates. If rewiring is too costly, as has previously been suggested, create a wireless system and link it to its own monitoring and recording facility, or provide prisoners with their own secure hand-held sets (for use in-cell).
  • An Intranet System, into which the full content of a vetted website can be uploaded. This would provide access to a sites full content while restricting free access to the rest of the internet.
  • An App or Software that can be accessed via a desktop computer or laptop and which enables restricted access (by use of algorithms) to the internet. Programmed to enable access to ‘safe sites’, those that aid rehabilitation and personal development. For example, allowing full access to The Open University’s student homepage and forums. This would open up access to a far broader range of subjects, rather than restricting prisoners (even those in Category D prisons) to the meagre prospectus for closed environments.
  • A Two-way e-mail service, rather than the current one-way set-up. Outgoing emails could be verified prior to dispatch by censors. This would enable a swift but recordable message for legal or other official purposes. Just like with phone numbers, the recipients of the e-mail service would first need to consent to the link.
  • Multi-service, digital kiosks on every prison wing or fitted in every cell. These kiosks could enable prisoners to order their own item form catalogue suppliers, items on the canteen list, toiletries and prison issue clothing from the stores, or check their own finances without having to make thousands of pointless journeys to the staff office or waste paper in the process. All could be forwarded digitally to the business hub or the relevant department for processing and keeping records. The efficiency savings on staff time and finances would be immense.
  • Alternatively, or in addition, Secured laptops could be provided which enable some of the above procedures to be carried out. They could be connected to a wireless system that routinely channelled into security and monitoring systems.
  • Access to a Secure and commissioned website to upload personal photographs and view those of family and other approved persons. A facility like this would enable prisoners to share memorable moments with their loved ones and retain something tangible for the future. Currently for prisoners, it is either use a mobile phone or have a non-existent history to share with your children or grandchildren. Such a facility could be designed so that only those approved can gain access.

Many of these systems and facilitates could be interlinked. For example, an upgraded phone system, email service, restricted internet access and ordering/application systems could be part of the same apparatus. However, as previously mentioned, the possibilities with technology are unlimited and the above are merely suggested alternatives ideas that encapsulate aims and objectives in prisoners’ lives that can currently be accomplished to a far better degree by using unauthorised technology.

4. What might be the outcomes of fewer phones and other tech in the prison system?

Unfortunately, there will always be those who seek to engage in criminal activities in prisons (because the state, for example, cannot service the needs of someone seeking to earn a hundred thousand pounds through selling drugs), but, fortunately, these people are fewer in number than the vast majority of prisoners who, I believe, would move away from prohibited technology if the facilities were available for them to satisfy their existing, legitimate needs.

If this can be achieved, a revolution will gradually develop within our prisons. As people start to rely on the new technologies to meet their needs, they will naturally move away from unauthorised items. After all, there is a price to pay for getting caught with a mobile phone (The maximum penalty is two years in prison) or other technologies, so the costs will start to outweigh the benefits. Similarly, individuals who use phones for both illegitimate and legitimate purposes will reconsider their wider needs if more of their core, legitimate needs are being satisfactorily met. Dissonance will also start to increase in the minds of those who sit somewhere in the middle, and many will begin to choose the safer option. Besides, as well as the risks, it takes significant effort to smuggle unauthorised technologies into prisons, which includes reliable links to external resources.

A natural consequence would be an overall reduction in the number of phones within the prison system. Since a large number of individuals, who may have previously considered crossing the threshold (to smuggle in or purchase a phone), would no longer feel the need to partake in the tech-network, demand will drop. With fewer customers, or incentive for smugglers, the value of phones (currently around £500 to £1000 per Smart phone, depending on prison) will also decline, having a further effect on perceptions of risk-reward for individuals who play a role in smuggling phones into the system for cash, drugs or personal reasons.

With fewer people willing to use and hold phones, the individuals with enduring illegitimate motives will be exposed to more pressure from their communities, since they will feel isolated due to having less customers, associates or neighbours prepared to look after their phones. Similarly, with fewer phones in existence, those with illegitimate motives will also be more vulnerable to detection by security measures and intelligence from fellow prisoners, since security resources will go further and previous associates will no longer feel the need to be loyal. The lack of availability will also mean that if a phone gets discovered or runs out of credit, it will no longer be easy to just pop next door and, for example, use the neighbour’s phone to arrange for a new delivery or buy a top-up from a service provider. There will also be a natural drop in other technologies in the system, like dongles, USB sticks, SD cards, and whatever else may arrive in future, all technologies that enable the circumvention of prison rules and rehabilitative interventions.

With fewer phones, the amount of illegal substances entering prisons will also be reduced and should have a positive influence for the people fighting addiction. Although drug addiction is a complex issue that requires more than one solution, if the means by which drugs entering the system are adversely effected, it can only have a positive outcome. That said, drug users are not just customers for drug dealers; they are also their work horses. Their dependency due to their addiction cannot be understated and, whether through debt or threats of violence (linked to debt), their uses expand the full range when it comes to the influx, use and spread of unauthorised technology. Yet their ability to feed their addictions and assist drug smuggling networks will be affected. Not only will there be less phones for them to transfer money from, say, a friend’s or girlfriend’s bank account to a proxy account set up by a drug dealer, the increased contact they will receive with family (via authorised technologies) will improve family ties (positive influences, etc.) and discourage their addiction-related behaviours.

5. What might be the outcomes of new and improved technology?

As people shift to more appropriate methods of communication, anyone looking to return to more inappropriate means will find it harder to locate, forcing them to rely on the authorised forms of communication which are monitored and recorded by censors and security. This will be one of the most significant outcomes of providing more up-to-date and affordable means of communication. The standard security measures in place to protect the public will be put to full effect and assist in curtailing crime and risk-related behaviour.

With new and better forms of technology rolled out across the prison system, outcomes in education (whether provided by the State or offered by Distance Learning providers) and interventions (Offending Behaviour Programmes, Therapy, PIPES, Progression Regimes, etc.) will be enhanced. With less chaos, drugs and distractions, people will be able to focus on their short-term and long-term goals more effectively. Another important outcome will be familiarisation. For the individuals serving long sentences, the current lack of interaction with modern forms of technology (particularly digitalised self-service facilities) means that under current conditions they are leaving prison and entering a world that is almost foreign. With the best intentions in the world, the transition from a prisoner to a citizen can be a difficult one to make, so up-to-date tech would enable prisoners to familiarised themselves with the IT and self-service systems, smoothing the eventual reintegration process and helping people to succeed on the first time round, rather than on the second or third attempt.


This paper has argued that the disparity between the growth of technology in society and its restricted use inside prisons has distorted progress, led to more crime and places society at continued risk. Moreover, successive governments have unwittingly allowed the situation to develop because of fears that something might go wrong if technologies were to rolled out across the system.

However, in order to win the battle over the imbalance in tech-ownership, governments of the day need to collaborate with industries to develop technological solutions that provide access to better and more affordable facilities that meet the legitimate needs of the prison population. If this could be achieved, those committing serious crime can be isolated, identified and curtailed. In addition, the individuals who are serious about changing their lives around and engaging fully in the rehabilitation process will be able to do so without distraction, and perhaps then the revolving door of crime can be slowed to a more manageable and inexpensive pace.

Finally, as technology continues to advance in society, no doubt more advanced forms of communication will appear on the market. Therefore, if there was to be an implementation of better technology in prisons, it would need constant revision to make sure current technologies are up-to-date and able to interact/communicate effectively with external forms, as well as meet the needs of prisoners. An initial outlay would be needed, but the returns would massively outweigh the investment. The current cost of crime to the British taxpayer is astronomical, so the savings would not only reduce the burden on public finances, it would, if people left prison as better human beings, be socially beneficial too.