Prisoners Access to technology

Public Acceptability Survey on the Prisoners’ Access to Digital Technology: Emerging Results

By Dr Victoria Knight and Dr Lee Hadlington
De Montfort University, United Kingdom

Earlier this year we announced the launch on the first public attitude survey on prisoners’ access to digital technology. Knight and Hadlington (2017) designed an attitude scale to capture a number of views from the UK public on security, reducing reoffending and improving resettlement, relationships, skills and employment, cost and also the implementation of digital technology.

There have been a small number of public attitude and opinion surveys relating to prison. Overall these surveys highlight that the general public does not fully understand the day-to-day experience of a serving prisoner (Roberts and Hough 2005).

As such this makes it difficult for many of the public to make informed decisions about prison life. Moreover, public opinion surveys outline that the public would like our prisons to prioritise rehabilitation in secure and risk averse ways (Mcguire 1996). Principles of punishment remain a lower priority as far as the public are concerned (ibid).

In many respects, services can become paralysed by perceived attitudes and political rhetoric which can stifle change in fear of being accused of going ‘soft’ on crime.

Penal populism has been used to describe this kind of response. As a result
…penal populism was effectively mediated and translated into law, rather than writing it itself. In doing so, government officials brought into play some of their own interests as well as those of other less visible interest groups (Pratt & Clark 2005).

This survey is an attempt to provide contemporary evidence to help policymakers to achieve the confidence they require to satisfy public opinion and make informed decisions about the implementation of digital technologies in prisons.

The first phase of this study is now complete and the initial findings highlight the following:

Privilege and Access

The survey does highlight that there is initial nervousness about prisoners having access to digital technology. Over half (54%) the survey said in the first instance that they were against access For example, the public would be very keen for emails to be screened (73%).

However when pressed to responded to further questions they acknowledged that access had to be earned (57%) because the same amount believed digital technology to be a luxury and should not be ‘free’ without a cost and/or compliance. However, a fewer proportion (42% ) felt it was unreasonable, with the remaining either supporting access or feeling unsure about this.

Purposeful Activity & Rehabilitation

Despite this strength in attitude when asked respondents were able to record their opinion they acknowledged the purposeful and rehabilitative benefits. Access to digital technology in prison is conceived by half (50%) of the public surveyed that this can help improve digital skills, make better use of time in prison, enhance learning opportunities as well as help finding and securing a job.

The public was less convinced that digital technology can improve self- confidence (41%). There were an even smaller proportion of respondents who perceived a direct relationship between digital access and use and a reduction in reoffending (22%).


Questions in relation to security, risk and cyber security identified a fear of reoffending. 80% felt that victims might be contacted if prisoners could have an online experience and 86% felt that this might help prisoners to continue criminal activities. Whilst these fears were felt by most of the sample surveyed 87% had an expectation that emails would be censored and 94% agreed that they should be screened for sensitive information.

Cost, capability and change

Over half (52%)of the respondents agreed that prisoners should be charged to access and use a range of digital technologies whilst in prison. For those surveyed 61% agreed that the taxpayer shouldn’t fund this kind of enterprise.

However, a similar amount (44%) could see how technology might bring about efficiency savings and save them money. When asked a few respondents envisaged the reduction of staffing in the advent of digitisation of the prison.

With this in mind, 53% expressed that prison services are not capable of introducing these services right now and it will according to 62% create additional work. Just under half 47% believe that this should not be a priority.

The Undecided

In general opinions on digital technology, use was fairly polarised, with most individuals who have very strong opinions on key issues being raised. However, a smaller percentage of individuals (approximately 25%) remained undecided. This could be due to a lack of knowledge upon which to base a clear opinion.

For many aspects of digital technology use, in general, everyday life appear to be something of an unknown, and asking for opinions on the use of such in a specialist environment may create even more confusion.

Many expressed a fear that technology could create even more opportunities for prisoners to engage in additional criminal activities. However, this is in the absence of clearer information about what security protocols, measures and solutions are available to prevent this from happening.

Based on this initial survey Knight and Hadlington will commence the next stages exploring the public’s view in more detail. The findings of this phase will be used to elicit qualitative responses in focus groups. The next phase will then survey prison staff in much the same ways and finally the prisoner group. In the meantime, this early evidence outlines an opportunity to shift opinion and inform the public on this matter.

Knight, V. and Hadlington, L. (2017) Launch of a Public Acceptability Survey on the Prisoners’ Access to Digital Technology. ICPA (accessed 12.6.17)
Maguire, K. (Ed.). (1996). Sourcebook of criminal justice statistics 1995. DIANE Publishing. (accessed 12.6.17)
Pratt, J., & Clark, M. (2005). Penal populism in New Zealand. Punishment & Society, 7(3), 303-322.
Roberts, J. V., & Hough, M. (2005). The state of the prisons: Exploring public knowledge and opinion. The Howard Journal 44 (3) pp. 286–306


This content is published here with permission from the authors.

Dr Victoria Knight PhD MA BA (Hons) is a senior research fellow for the Community and Criminal Justice Division in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, De Montfort University. She has expertise and research experience across three core areas: 1) digital technologies use in prisons, 2) emotion and criminal justice and 3) offender education. Read her full profile here.

Dr Lee Hadlington is a Senior Lecturer of the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, School of Applied Social Sciences, at De Montfort University. His research covers but is not limited to Cognition, Cyberpsychology and Cybercognition.

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