Transforming Rehabilitation through digital technology in New South Wales Corrections

Technology Implementation Case

New South Wales

Context

In June 2019, the former New South Wales (Australia) Premier announced a new set of Premier’s Priorities which included a target to reduce adult reoffending. In response, Corrective Services New South Wales (CSNSW) developed a program of work divided into four workstreams that consisted of over 70 individual projects. The ambitious target was to reduce adult reoffending following release from prison for high-risk offenders committing serious crimes by 5% by 2023.  

One of the workstreams was designed to ‘Transform Prisoner Rehabilitation Through Digital Technology’. To support delivery CSNSW submitted a successful business case to the Digital Restart Fund (DRF) that is administered by New South Wales Customer Service. The funding bid of $40.42 million included proposals to expand in-cell tablet technology in NSW prisons and enhance the use of current technologies to augment rehabilitation opportunities. 

Problem

People in custody in NSW can spend up to 16 hours per day in their cells. This time in cell is usually unproductive so CSNSW sought ways to increase opportunities for purposeful activity and engagement during this period. Introducing digital technology to this environment offered a solution to this challenge. In particular, the potential for increasing contact with family and friends though the deployment of secure digital communication channels including audiovisual link (AVL), telephony and text messages offered tangible and immediate benefits.  

Without access to technology, there is little available to people while in cells to support behaviour change, engage in meaningful activity or to improve the experience of being in custody. Staff are restricted to accessing inmates to when they are out of cell, leaving limited time for positive interactions. During out of cell time there is significant competition for the various services, programs, work, and activities that they are available. Van De Steene and Knight (2017) report that: “Sustaining these digital endeavours to keep prisoners ‘up to speed’ is aligned with aspirations to avoid and minimize the disruption to their life-course. Technology is a way to enable modernisation as well as normalisation”.    

CSNSW is committed to achieving an increase in treatment dosage. This is defined as the number of hours a person is engaged in evidence-based behaviour change interventions. The prevailing evidence suggests that those at higher risk of reoffending require at least 160 hours of such intervention to improve reoffending outcomes. Providing in-cell technology as well as enhancing opportunities to access services and programs through digital solutions has the potential to significantly increase dosage. 

Prisons have been described as digital deserts. The current digital access landscape for incarcerated individuals is poorly aligned to community and government expectations around preparing all citizens to thrive in the digital world. The establishment of the DRF provided a welcome opportunity to enhance digital options for prisoners. It is an essential requirement for ensuring exiting prisoners are well prepared for a pro-social life on release.  

Adding to the complexity of CSNSW efforts to reduce reoffending, our custodial environments and community corrections locations cover large, geographically dispersed areas accounting for over 12 000 people in custody and some 35,000 community offenders state-wide. Technology has the potential to enable digital program and service delivery solutions despite geographical location challenges.  

Solution

The Transform Prisoner Rehabilitation through Digital Technology Program will contribute to improvements in community safety though its impact on the volume of crime. The program aims to use tablet computers (“tablets”) and other digital technology to improve the delivery of corrective services. The primary objective is to contribute to the Premier’s Priority of reducing adult reoffending following release from prison for higher risk offenders, however there will be collateral benefits for all people in custody irrespective of sentence status or risk level. 

The new technology will allow people in custody to take more responsibility for their own rehabilitation. The custodial experience of people in custody is improved by creating efficiencies in the delivery of service and providing opportunities for normalisation noting that most incarcerated people will return at some stage to the community.  

CSNSW is required to comply with the DRF’s Investment Prioritisation Framework and show return on investment in accordance with defined criteria. This includes ensuring that the project is meeting its objectives as well as demonstrating economic viability. The project is also required to produce a net economic benefit to the State and improve economic growth and productivity. 

With the support of DRF investment, CSNSW has designed and implemented a digital strategy which incorporates a range of technology solutions. These include offender tablets for use in cell, computers for use out of cell in a classroom setting and AVL booths/rooms for connecting people in custody between prisons and to internal and external services. The digital transformation commenced with a limited pilot of in-cell tablets that was rolled out across 12 correctional facilities between 2020 and 2021. 

The business case proposed to implement the digital transformation pilot state-wide with estimated economic benefits of approximately $209 million over 10 years. CSNSW began the implementation of DRF-funded investments in November 2021 and as of February 2023, in-cell tablets have been provided to 22 prisons. By end June 2023 nearly all prisons in NSW will have this technology available. 

The CSNSW digital solution provides for a one tablet per person ratio unlike other jurisdictions where access to this technology is determined by an inmate’s security classification. Pridham (2020) noted in Tasmanian prisons “that inmates with appropriate security classifications were allowed to use computers.”  

With technology becoming integral to daily service delivery and communications, CSNSW considers access to tablets to be an entitlement and accordingly not subject to complete withdrawal as a sanction for bad behaviour. The system however is fully configurable so access can be restricted at any time to individual components. The person in custody acknowledges that if they intentionally damage tablets, they will be charged the full amount for cost recovery.

Recent experience is that users are taking good care of the devices. This is a testament to the utility of the tablets and recognises that they have now become an essential tool of communication that prisoners are reluctant to do without. Bardelli, Zarook and Derick (2022) note that: “The prisoner is increasingly treated not as a ‘ward of the state’ but as a “consumer of institutional services (…) The shift toward a greater reliance on technology will likely transform the lives of the incarcerated”.

Results

While there is limited empirical data available at this stage of the program for analysis, CSNSW are partnering with academics and vendors to generate an understanding of how digital capacity, desistence frameworks and reoffending performance indicators can coexist to create better outcomes for people in prison.  

CSNSW’s digital strategy provides an integrated solution, accessible by all people in custody, regardless of sentence type or length. CSNSW is carefully guiding the solution to ensure it is evergreen and constantly evolving in line with best practise. Success in this respect is contingent on the program being driven by the agency and built on individual needs rather than on the packaged offerings of vendors who understandably seek to monetise prison-based technologies.  

Thaler, Barkworth and Howard (2022) completed a study following implementation at the first two CSNSW in-cell tablet pilot sites. This work highlighted potential impacts on inmates’ wellbeing including a reduction in friction between inmates, perceived improvements in autonomy and communication with loved ones. The authors noted that “Interviewed inmates consistently reported extremely high levels of tablet usage, both their own and among their fellow inmates. They commonly saw the tablets as an important part of their current experience of life in prison, often reporting missing them greatly when they are not available or not working (…). Almost all interviewees reported that access to the tablets has had a substantial positive impact on their relationships with family and friends in the community.” 

Over a 3-year period, CSNSW has made a significant investment in digital technology. This is accompanied by high expectations for the investment to increase accessibility, to be a business enabler and to improve the rehabilitative potential of the system. CSNSW is keen to measure success and to acquire a better understanding of how technology can change the experience of prison both for incarcerated people and CSNSW staff. A full monitoring and evaluation framework has been developed with academic partners. The framework identifies 14 focus areas for interrogating how technology can rehabilitate and impact people in custody (Lulham et al., 2021). 

Correctional facilities around the world are incrementally adopting digital technology with the broad aim of enhancing offender management, security, safety, surveillance and efficiency. Transforming prisoner rehabilitation is an important and ambitious goal for the NSW Government. While new digital technology can provide a platform it will be the way that it is deployed and utilised that will determine how effective it is.

References

Bardelli, T., Ruqaiyah, Z. and McCarthy, D.  (March 7, 2022). How Corporations Turned Prison Tablets into a Predatory Scheme.

Lulham, R. and Bradley, K. A; Wan, K. and C. McKay (2021). Research and Evaluation Strategy for the Transformation of Prisoner Rehabilitation through Digital Technology. Corrective Services NSW Strategic Document.

Pridham, B. (November 2022). Former inmates struggling to reintegrate into society due to minimal experience with digital technology.

Thaler, O., Barkworth, J., Howard, M. (2022). Implementing digital technologies in prisons: A qualitative study of inmate experiences. Corrections Research Evaluation and Statistics, Corrective Services NSW.  NSW RESEARCH BULLETIN No. 58| NOVEMBER 2022 | ISSN 220708501 

Van De Steene, S., and Knight, V.  (2017). Digital transformation for prisons: Developing a needs-based strategy. Probation Journal, 64(3), 256–268

Renee Van Aaken is an experienced leader in the Criminal Justice sector, with extensive and diverse skills in criminal justice including operational, management and strategic areas. After completing a Criminology degree in 2001, Renee worked several years in frontline operational and management roles in correctional centres and was promoted to a leadership role 2012. Renee then moved into project management where for the past 6 years she has led and managed multiple agency initiatives, large scale reforms and restructures, including the NSW Government’s Strategy to Reduce Reoffending Program and the Premier’s Priority to Reduce Recidivism. In 2021 she graduated with Honours in a Master of Business Administration (MBA). A new and exciting area interest for Renee is correctional technology, leading the development and implementation a business case for a $40m program to transform prisoner rehabilitation through technology.  

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