Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Radical or Radial? Why new technology is necessary but not sufficient for prison reform

Europe’s prison chiefs took a break from their annual conference last week to visit Belgium’s newest prison. Beveren, near Antwerp is due to receive the first of its 312 prisoners in February 2014. Much of what awaits them will be very different from the country’s overcrowded and understaffed prisons, criticised over the years by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture. As in the UK, Belgium’s prison population has almost doubled in the last twenty years, with the  task of the prison service  made harder by a series of strikes by staff and the complex needs of a  population almost half of whom are foreign nationals.

Beveren is one of seven new establishments planned to provide modern and humane infrastructure which aims to make a prisoner’s life as normal as possible. Key to the vision is an innovative Prison Cloud system which will allow each prisoner access to  a computer in their cell- to make phone calls, order items from the prison shop , undertake e learning courses and make appointments.  They will be able to rent a movie from a library of 30,000 as well as watch tv and pay for premium channels.  While the IT system will initially be available 24/7, individual arrangements can be made for each prisoner, depending on risk, need and behaviour. Prisoners will be expected to work during the day, participate in education and sports and then “go home “to their cell where they can make use of technological opportunities, albeit in a more limited way than would be possible  outside.

Given the radical nature of the Cloud, it is perhaps surprising that much else of the prison seems so conventional. The living units have been constructed in a star shaped form with three storey wings radiating from a central control area.  There are very small kitchens on each wing but we saw little in the way of space for therapeutic groups, or psychological counselling. Association will take place in a large communal area or in walking yards which will be overlain with cables to prevent helicopter assisted escapes.  Movement to workshops or the gym will be through long poorly lit corridors.

This so-called Ducpetiaux model dates back to the 1830’s when Belgium’s first prison inspector drew inspiration from visits to Pentonville to endorse an approach to imprisonment based on cellular confinement in order to foster penitence and encourage rehabilitation.  The Quaker philosophy may have  long since disappeared but its institutional form remains a powerful force on prison design.

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