Achieving digital maturity in prisons: A Study on Digital Readiness
10 min read
Achieving digital maturity in prisons: A Study on Digital Readiness
Steven Van De Steene, Bianca C. Reisdorf & Victoria Knight
Governmental organisations are being continuously challenged to increase the pace, volume and range of new technologies to improve operations and aim for better delivery of services.
Our prisons are embroiled in this transformative journey with some of them more ‘advanced’ digitally speaking than others. It’s generally acknowledged in literature that the success of this journey depends on a variety of factors of which the majority aren’t in and of themselves digital.
Digital maturity originates from the premise that organisations need to be able to respond and adapt to their environment. As prisons are traditionally communication-poor environments, this digital readiness isn’t self-evident (Knight, Reisdorf & Van De Steene, 2023).
Where the ambition to change is routinely framed around prison-reform agendas in many jurisdictions, the journey towards adopting and integrating technology or anticipating digital change isn’t always embedded in those strategies.
This process of adopting and integrating technology into different aspects of an organisation is referred to as digital transformation. It involves a fundamental change in the way an organisation operates and interacts with its beneficiaries, which can be a quite challenging. This is an ambitious undertaking as prisons are complex organisations.
A common misleading conception is that digital transformation is basically about the implementation and use of cutting-edge technologies (Kane, 2017). It is not difficult to find examples where new systems or tools have not achieved the intended transformative impact or remain unused by staff or other beneficiaries. Using or not using modern technologies doesn’t give a prison service any guarantee of realising the transformation they aimed for.
Digital Transformation is a challenging process that not only includes the adoption and integration of technology into different aspects of the organisation, but also reflecting and evaluating to what extend it can be used to increase security, efficiency, and meet the aims of rehabilitation and desistance. It involves a thinking process related to the question of how to anticipate digital change in society and includes fundamental shifts in the way a prison operates and interacts with both the people inside it as well as its external stakeholders.
While digital transformation is the journey itself, digital maturity is a measure of where an organisation stands in its journey and how ready it is to embark on this process successfully.
In a recent study, we analysed digital maturity in the context of prisons. Our project has highlighted the need to adopt a holistic approach to understanding digital maturity. Many existing digital maturity models are too generic and fall short of understanding the prison culture, organisation, and its people.
The penal landscape presents distinctive challenges for transformation and is fraught with moral and ethical dilemmas.
DigiMacTM is a digital maturity model that we developed to understand the design, process, delivery, and consumption of digital services, while at the same time understanding the nature and complexity of the prison landscape and its people. It aims to be a practical model for prisons and enable agencies to build their own digital strategies and self-assessment tools.
We must stress that the design of the digital maturity tool has emerged as a result of careful consideration of human needs and harm reduction. Digital maturity encompasses the thinking process around exploring and adopting digital technologies where appropriate, as well as the decision-making around defining the demarcation of its use and where it is not appropriate to transform analogue, human processes into digital ones.
That is, we do not define digital maturity as being ready to go digital at all costs. It is more about readiness and preparedness to change and respond. This includes the need for an organisation to have the right culture, leadership, processes, and capabilities in place.
Digital maturity dimensions
Digital maturity models are structuring different perspectives and underlying questions or capabilities relevant to the understanding of digital maturity in comprehensive categories which we refer to as dimensions.
In the DigiMacTM model we have built on existing literature and structured those into the following 5 dimensions:
Metrics and evaluation
We have argued before that technological innovation and real transformational change in prisons should take place within a broad ecosystem in which incarcerated people and prison staffplay a significant role (Knight & Van De Steene, 2017). Putting the wishes and needs of — depending on the context — customers, clients, or users at the centre of a digital strategy and development is broadly accepted as a key to success.
For prison services, however, the acceptance and capabilities to incorporate all stakeholders, including incarcerated individuals, in their digital projects isn’t self-evident. As the consumerisation of digital technology has enabled many opportunities for improved communication, participation, and consumer or citizen-centric service design and delivery in society, the capacity and engagement to anticipate, and where relevant, adopt this into the prison service is an important indicator of digital maturity.
The capability to shape digital technologies either to serve incarcerated people directly (i.e., extend and enhance the delivery of services to them) or indirectly (i.e., use technology to improve the entire environment where incarcerated people live) depends on how the organisation has embedded this ambition in their strategy and translated this into its internal structure and processes.
DigiMacTM includes not only how a prison service is organised internally, but also how it is supported to drive digital change from within the broader justice and governmental system and the society.
Digital transformation is a combination of processes related to integration and adaptation, which happens in a broader societal ecosystem: some organisations are actively searching for creative solutions to specific needs and are well structured to facilitate this research and development process. The organisational readiness, however, to embed those new ideas and developments into day-to-day operations is yet another distinct capacity that is independent from whether the ideas are developed internally our pushed from the outside.
Using the organisational dimension, we can better understand the different elements that support both the ambition to embed digital into strategy, as well as the organisational capacity to translate this into operational practice. Leadership is also key to this dimension as it tells us something about change management, restructuring of business processes, improving management skills, and changing the organisational culture (Aslanova & Kulichkina, 2020).
Openness and readiness to change is not only a matter of how you are organised, but also how people are equipped and supported to drive that change.
There is an important cultural dimension to organisational readiness that refers to an organisation’s approach to digitally driven change, innovation, and how it empowers employees with digital technology. This cultural dimension is strongly focused on people, and how they are equipped, but also on how this culture is actively supported and led.
A particularly interesting aspect of managing this culture in the context of prisons is the attitude towards risks. Kane (2017) posits that overcoming the aversion to risk is perhaps the most important characteristic of digitally maturing cultures.
Prisons are traditionally known as places where changes, especially related to communication and new technologies, are primarily seen as a risk or threat to order and discipline. This context creates a particular challenge related to the cultural dimension, where motivations and drivers of digital change are dependent on attitudes towards security and risk. Their openness to changes in these areas needs a cultural shift. This depends of course on the capabilities of understanding the full impact of the technology on an organisation and its people.
The readiness of organisations to anticipate technological changes depends on the availability and accessibility of those technologies. This dimension includes a variety of aspects, such as material resources, access to funds to acquire and implement technologies, and also the knowledge and skills to understand them, and create and sustain technological performance.
Investments in technology are often difficult to get in correctional environments. However, while investment in skills and technology is important, the effect of it and its impact on the digital readiness of an organisation depends on how this investment is used: what kind of skills and technology are used and how does this fit in the whole organisation’s strategy? This relates to the starting point where successful digital transformation needs to include careful consideration of what kind of technology is fit to achieve the expected outcome without negative side-effects.
Technology is not new to prisons and many resources are spent across jurisdictions to implement and maintain digital services. However, this does not necessarily mean technology is used successfully to achieve the organisation’s business strategy. In the case of prisons this could mean enhanced rehabilitation and better resettlement and not just improved administrative efficiency or better security measures. To get real insights into the results and effects of an organisation’s digital journey, close monitoring and evaluation are needed, which brings us to the fifth dimension of our model: metrics and evaluation.
Metrics and evaluation
The DigiMacTM model tries to understand how decision-making is guided by data and how the evaluation of digital projects can propel digital transformation trajectories. Data helps organisations to evaluate both the organisation’s strategic and operational abilities. It is important to establish the distinction between process success (using data to evaluate the direct outcomes of using technology and using data-driven solutions as engines for operational processes) and further using generated data for decision-making and planning (generating more insight to support the organisation’s strategic future).
For both aims, it is important not only to understand the organisations readiness to effectively use data—data engineering capabilities—but also the maturity in data governance, the development of policies and procedures for maintaining data security, compliance, and also privacy aspects related to the use and ownership of data.
Degrees of digital maturity
Our study provides a helpful oversight on what dimensions jurisdictions are working on and what the gaps are in order to achieve a holistic human-centred approach. Our research has identified three kinds of digital readiness.
Leaders in readiness
Jurisdictions in this group scored high in all five dimensions. They stated they had implemented and executed cross-government strategies. Their activity is informed by experts and end users. Their agendas have a strong rehabilitative focus and there is significant investment to mature their digital portfolio. However, their activity around evaluation appears to be weaker compared to the other dimensions.
Progressors in readiness
Jurisdictions in this group score high in two dimensions. They describe citizen-centric agendas and are driven by normalisation. There is evidence of cross-working practices but they experience barriers to working collaboratively or in partnership. There is investment, but this is routinely small-scale. Periodically, they do attempt to gather evidence and evaluate progress.
Preparers in readiness
Jurisdictions in this group do not score high in any of the dimensions but do score medium in 3-4 dimensions. They adopt a strategic approach, but this is siloed and operates locally. They have a strong desire to secure partnerships and collaborate. They also operate in prison services who are nervous about digitisation.
We believe readiness on those different dimensions appropriately describes the mood of digital maturity during the evolutionary phases of prison digitisation. It captures the capacity, capability, and culture of this endeavour. If readers would like to know more about our evidence-based tool, please contact us.
Aslanova, I. V., & Kulichkina, A. I. (2020, May). Digital maturity: Definition and model. In 2nd International Scientific and Practical Conference “Modern Management Trends and the Digital Economy: from Regional Development to Global Economic Growth” (MTDE 2020), (pp. 443–449). Atlantis Press.
Knight, V., & Van De Steene, S. (2017). The capacity and capability of digital innovation in prisons: Towards smart prisons. Advancing Corrections, 4(8), 88–101.
Steven Van De Steene is an enterprise architect and an expert in technology for corrections. He works as a consultant in the area of innovation and technology strategy for prisons and probation services. Steven is not only a Board member of the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA), but he is also the coordinator of its Technology Solutions Network. Until 2015 he has been the Belgian Prison Service’s IT Director.
Bianca C. Reisdorf, PhD., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte, USA. Her work focuses on the intersection of inequalities and digital media and the Internet, with a focus on digital inequalities among marginalized populations. In her recent research, Dr. Reisdorf has been focusing on internet access in correctional settings and how returning citizens navigate a technology-dependent world after release.
Victoria Knight, PhD, MA, BA (Hons), is an Associate Professor in Research for the Community and Criminal Justice Division in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, De Montfort University. She has expertise and research experience and published works across two core areas: digital technologies use in prisons, and emotion and criminal justice. Victoria is also the Director of the Prison and Probation Research Hub and convenor of the Emotion and Criminal Justice Cluster at De Montfort University.