THE BLOG
07/11/2013 07:02 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Time to Close the Digital Divide Between Prisons and Communities

The very existence and popularity of this blog is testament to the increasingly digital world we live in where the majority of us consume information and manage our lives on the internet. So what must it be like for people who can't get online or even on to a computer? Imagine trying to do your job, find work, or study a course without technology. That is what it is like for prisoners in England and Wales who currently have no access to the internet and patchy experience of using computers.

Technology could transform rehabilitation, by giving prisoners access to e-learning, online job sites, family support and housing they will be better prepared to leave prison and less likely to reoffend. A new report by Prisoners Education Trust and the Prison Reform Trust explores the potential for computers and secure, controlled internet access to rehabilitate prisoners, with support from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick. As Mr Hardwick points out in his foreword, ICT use in prisons is sadly still stuck in the dark ages.

The report recognises that there are serious concerns about security which must be addressed, however, it is possible to restrict access and use technology to monitor abuses while still providing good ICT solutions. Not to do so would risk sending more people back on to our streets, ill-equipped to live a life free from crime.

Through the Gateway: How Computers Can Transform Rehabilitation is based on a survey of prisons sent to all prison governors and directors. Nearly three quarters (74%) of respondents agreed that prisoners should have access to the internet and 94% agreed ICT skills were necessary for everyday living.

Research shows that education, training, employment, and maintaining family ties are all factors which reduce a person's likelihood of reoffending after they leave prison. With nearly half (47%) of adults reconvicted within one year of release, rising to 58% for those serving sentences of less than 12 months, we need to try something new.

As chief executive of a charity with almost 25 years' experience in prisons, I know education has the power to transform lives. ICT can encourage more prisoners to learn, can offer more subjects and levels of education and can do so in interactive, engaging ways but it is not yet being used to its full potential.

Although we applaud the Government for investing in a computer system to support education in prisons, many prisoners are yet to utilise it. One prisoner, Emma, who is currently struggling to study her Open University degree because some modules are only available online, said that in her prison, the computers are all too often just sitting idle. This is a massive waste and missed opportunity.

There are many players within prison and probation - from staff employed by prisons, to external education providers who come in and the many charities that volunteer - so it is essential we have a national strategy to co-ordinate the use of ICT for rehabilitation. As its use grows, we need to ensure that it complements, not replaces, the face-to-face contact with officers, teachers and families that really is essential for people to get the support they need to desist from crime. And as we bring prisons into the 21st century, let's make sure we do so for the right reasons and equip people with the skills and motivation to turn away from criminal lifestyles which leads to fewer victims of crime.