Digital transformation in the Belgian prison system: improving the daily life of inmates and staff

Technology Implementation Case

Belgium

Context & Problem

The digitisation of Justice is a story of people. People who go to extremes to bring this project to fruition. Within Justice, the prison system is a world unto itself. Nonetheless, digital progress is pounding on the door.   

“Normalisation of detention”, “active citizenship of detainees”, “working ‘through the gate’” – these are all expressions increasingly heard within a rapidly changing penitentiary world.   

A digital link between society and the institution allows detainees to stay connected with the digitalisation we all notice in everyday life.   

Furthermore, guiding staff through the whole digitisation process simply requires a different approach than the digital leap facing the administrative management of detention or detainees.  

To respond to this challenge, the Detention Digitisation Service (DDD) was set up within the Belgian Directorate-General for Penitentiary Institutions (DG EPI), in which various experts share their knowledge to speed up the already ongoing digitisation process of detention.   

Together with ICT (for staff) and OMS (for administrative detention management), DDD is, thus, to a large extent, a crossroad of consultation for all actors involved within or outside the DG EPI. Part of DDD’s mission is to create a digital link between society and prison in order to ensure that, while incarcerated, inmates can better adapt to or keep up with the digitalisation also occurring outside the prison walls.  

One of our challenges is linked to the modernisation of our Offender Management System (OMS). This platform is the administrative heart of our organisation and determines the smooth running of the prisons. The current contract is coming to an end, and so it is time to weigh all options, so we made in the past few months a well-considered decision for the future solution and the associated public contract. 

Solution
Regarding our Offender Management System, in 2012/2013, the original SIDIS application was replaced by a more modern and high-performance one.
 
The move to a web-based application was necessary and quite urgent at the time, especially in light of the then commissioning of a number of new prison institutions. Indeed, rolling out the old SIDIS application was not opportune in the new prisons for both technical and functional reasons. However, to adequately manage the risks and development lead time, an ‘existing’ integrated platform that had already proven its services in the field in the UK and the US, among others, was the choice at the time. This was then called the SIDIS Suite.   


Yet, the intellectual property rights of the SIDIS Suite – except for the features added at our request – are not owned by the Belgian Federal Public Service Justice. This, together with the expiry of the current contract, called for the build-out of a new OMS.  

About the digital platform that we offer to the individuals in our custody, we have it in three prisons and two forensic psychiatric centres (FPC) for a total of nearly 1,400 inmates and internees. Here, a digital connection with the outside world was made possible for the first time for a whole range of services that facilitate rehabilitation and reintegration. Therefore, secure Internet access, access to digital learning platforms, digital telephony, and IPTV are the main services currently being used, in addition to a whole range of services that enable the digital experience in a closed environment in a secure way.  

Our next goal is to make a digital learning platform available to every detainee in Belgium (a minimum of 7500 additional detainees) which should include limited and secure internet access. 

Results

Regarding the digital platform for detainees, our initial effort focused on providing extensive access to e-learning. To ensure the best possible reintegration outcomes for detainees, we aim to implement access both from classrooms and from inmates’ personal residence areas, across all of our prisons. Work on this is now in full swing, with IPTV and web radio offerings currently in production.  

Further digital capabilities will follow by adding to this digital platform additional services such as a web shop, e-banking for detainees, calls over the Internet, video and music on demand, and so on.   

In this way, the detainee will have access to the digital possibilities that exist in open society, though secure versions adapted to the prison environment. This platform will also become an important communication tool between the penitentiary organisation and inmates (and other external individuals).  

On the OMS side, with further developed digitisation of files, we will be able to automate even more processes. This digitisation also provides tools for policy preparation, development, and follow-up. In addition, scientific analysis, with a specific focus on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Business Intelligence (BI), will also be made easier.  

Just Prison, the new OMS under construction, allows optimal detention management. This includes the administrative and central management of inmates, their detention records, and, possibly, their detention plan.   

After serving a sentence, the inmate should be able to be checked out, and the data should be kept in an archive that remains consultable and can be reactivated at any time. The complete detention file, as well as the historical detention record, should be kept and can be displayed graphically. One unique detention record is linked to a detainee, independent of prison or sentence.   

Just Prison allows a detainee to be easily looked up using a variety of search criteria, including an alias should this prove useful. In addition, the system keeps track of who is involved in a detention file, for example, the public prosecutor, the police, the House of Justice, the lawyer, and more.  

Our digitalisation efforts across the system have already provided further valuable results.   

Internet, Wi-Fi, and telephony used to be labelled as unsafe. Still, today, within the Detention Digitisation Service, we facilitate our external partners (the staff of the Flemish, German, and French-speaking Communities who work closely with detainees in terms of rehabilitation and reintegration) in being connected to the Internet. This makes it easier for detainees to seek employment, and housing, deal with administrative processes, or receive training under supervision. For the probation system, this is simply a revolution.  

In an increasingly digital world, inmates are not left behind, either. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis unexpectedly accelerated this process. From the third week of the first lockdown, all detainees were given the opportunity to see their family or friends via videoconferencing. Suddenly people could see their family, who had been out of the picture for three years. We rolled out this system in one week by connecting computers to a digital video meeting platform within a secure and controlled environment. This was very enthusiastically received by inmates and staff. Meanwhile, digital visiting has become an essential and legal part of detainees’ visiting options.  

However, digitalisation for staff is also very important, and a digital acceleration must occur so that people can work with the latest equipment and platforms. The ICT department will be responsible for this, acting as a Single Point of Contact (SPOC) and pioneer for the digitisation of its organisation.  

After thoroughly catching up over the past year, about 90% of EPI employees have a new laptop equipped with MS O365, with all the associated benefits. Colleagues who change prisons can take their laptops with them, so e-mails can be checked at home if they wish. In the event of a disaster or a COVID-19 outbreak, they can continue working on location without risk.   

Internally, we are also working out plenty of solutions for all the software – sometimes disrespectfully called “shadow software” – that has been developed over the years within the prison system. These might include a data system for all personal items, which inmates hand over when they enter the prison. In many cases, such applications often contain links to other databases. If such an application stops working, a prison can become unworkable.  

This means finding solutions quickly and inventively, which is an essential part of our services’ modernisation and digitisation process. The only way forward is the digital road, and this is for all parts of our organisation.

After rolling out the ambitious projects and plans mentioned above, work will continue on this digital road. Here, the intention is to move from a purely IT-focused support service to a broader approach as a digital innovation and research service. This will involve not only providing services based on end users’ needs also research into fulfilling or detecting future needs. 

Kristoff Hemelinckx is the Director of ICT and of the Digitalisation Detention Service of the Belgian Federal Public Service of Justice, Prison Administration. Kristoff holds two Master’s Degrees from Gent University and is a seasoned expert in the field of prison infrastructure, security, and digitalisation with a proven track record in the political and government sectors. As the head of the Digitalisation Detention Service, he is committed to driving a digital transformation that advances the normalisation of detention, encourages active citizenship among inmates, and provides modern solutions for prison personnel and administration. 

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