Digitalisation is a huge change in the prison culture

Pia Puolakka
Electronic services are now more easily available to prisoners in the new women’s prison of Hämeenlinna that supports rehabilitation.

The Smart Prison project of the Criminal Sanctions Agency brings computer terminals to the cells of the Hämeenlinna prison, which has been chosen as a pilot site for the project. The devices give the inmates limited access to the external network and enable them to use the prison’s internal services. Keeping in contact with family and friends becomes easier - as does studying, making appointments, sending messages to the staff or even buying something from the canteen.

The benefits of having computer terminals in the cells may emerge a long time after release, says project manager Pia Puolakka.

– A lack of digital skills is one of the factors contributing to marginalisation. The inmates will learn to take care of matters independently using electronic services, like people do outside prison. When used in the right way, digitalisation multiplies the opportunities for rehabilitation and, at best, can reduce the risk of reoffending.

The intention is also to extend the project step by step to other prisons in the future. The implementation is easiest in new institutions in which the cabling required for the connections has already been taken into account in the planning stage.

If the experiences gained in Hämeenlinna are positive, the units now under construction on the Kerava, Vaala and Jyväskylä campuses will also be smart prisons.

Security comes first in digitalisation

Puolakka says that a lot of work will be required in taking through the reform. In prisons, changes usually take place later than in the rest of society.

- This is understandable as the safety of the customers, or the inmates, and society must be guaranteed. Matters must go through a certain screening process. The risks are discussed thoroughly, Puolakka says.

However, Puolakka seems to think that the time is now right, especially as the other public services are also being digitalised at a fast rate.

The way for smart prisons has been paved especially by the legislative amendment that entered into force in 2015. It improved the inmates’ opportunities to use the internet and electronic services considerably.

Today, every prison has workstations on which the inmates can use electronic services and visit several hundred websites. For example, courses in basic or general upper secondary education can be completed in the Moodle platform. Inmates can keep in touch with their family and friends through monitored email or Skype. Some units have organised courses in digital skills.

- A couple of years ago, many people objected to the idea that tablets would be given to inmates. Of course, there are certain data security risks, but a lot of time and money is spent on eliminating them. In addition, positive experiences of smart prisons have already been gained in other countries and this has increased trust in the project. We did not have to start from scratch.

Yes to managing everyday matters, no to social media

In a survey conducted at the planning stage, both the inmates and the prison staff expressed a wish that taking care of daily matters should be made easier. They believed that computer terminals in the cells would reduce paperwork.

However, the views on keeping in touch with family and friends and the outside world differed.

- The inmates hoped for contacts to the outside world, while the staff saw risks involved in that and considered the use of the prison intranet to be more important. We cannot allow the use of the social media channels because the security risks are too high.

- The inmates thought that access to entertainment services would also be nice. If music or books are included, their use can be justified and makes it easier to start using the device.

According to Puolakka, motivating and engaging both the staff and the inmates in using the new services is a considerable challenge.

- This is a huge change in the prison culture. Our project team is responsible for providing training and guidance. We also have to monitor the effectiveness and consider the indicators related to measuring it.

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