Prisons, technology and well-being (pt1)


The aims of my research for the WCMT were originally set out as follows:

To explore how using technology in prisons can improve mental health of prisoners. How the use of the internet, digital recording equipment and connectivity can positively impact on well being and recovery, and so reduce re-offending. To capture the stories of lives being changed by access to technology. To examine different models of working with the internet and technology in prisons and think about building an informed model for the prisons I have access to. Mental Health in prisons is increasingly important and overlooked and treating it using technology is a new area that should be considered. To look at ways to implement ideas, solutions and best practice into Stretch Digital and the work in prisons in the UK.

It has been hard to have any joined up thinking about these topics because all the prisons have been so different, from Melbourne, London to Norway – each prison is a little micro society depending on the director, staff and the make up of prisoners. I have seen interesting and advanced use of technology, but not really in the way I was expecting. The ‘well-being’ has come about for lots of reasons, a flexible attitude to technology is a by-product of a flexible attitude generally. I can talk about things that I have seen that I have thought, thats a good idea! It is difficult extracting the actual technology-factor in the well-being, as ‘well-being’ is quite an intangible concept (I spent a long time trying to explain it Norwegians, we settled on ‘mental health’ as a term we all understood).

In Bergen Prison there was not the ‘fear’ about communication and the internet that you find in all the UK prisons. Prisoners are not allowed internet access, but there is an intranet where they can research things – fill in on line forms, read the papers and practice navigating around. All the education and work departments had office with full internet, the white boards in the classrooms could access full internet. Head officers and senior staff had mobile phones because they might be needed. It just seemed a more practical and laid back response to the ‘problems’ of the internet and technology. In Trondheim male and female prisoners sat side by side in the computer room researching their projects. In the woodwork and metal work workshops there were classrooms where the students were using Sketch Up and business standard software to work on contracts for  cabins and CAD drawings. Everything had a link to the outside.

They were very open to the idea of the digital story sessions, that had not actually done anything like it, they were literally amazed at how open the women were and how much they wanted to share. The teachers came and sat in on one session and the the Director of the prison too, various officers popping in and out to have a look. I could not not deliver a full DS workshop as there just was not time. I spent a lot of time playing games and getting the participants to talk, we recorded in session 2 and I did most of the editing.

In Trondheim they has an amazing ‘Media and Communications’ room which had state-of the-art macs and software, a huge printer, once again everything up to the same standard as print workshop on the outside – the prisoners in their were working with a local museum to digits and archive their collection of old photographs – and learning a lot in the process (another good idea and a way to connect a prison to a museum perhaps)

In Bruvoll prison the education department had a camera, Adobe photoshop and Movie Maker on their PC’s in the education room. It was recognised that filmmaking, recording, photo manipulation, podcasts and digital stories were all things you could do successfully OFF LINE so were good ways to practise using the most up to date technology. The well-being comes from not feeling like you are missing out on all the advances in technology on the outside world.

I know of a prison in the UK that has ordered a mac suite over a year ago, 8 big Mac’s stuck in a cupboard on a corridor in the education department as the staff need ‘proper training’ – the Macs came after the drive of particularly committed teacher, art teacher, who wanted them for – amongst other things – a design enterprise coming from the art room. There is no top-down support for this kind of enterprise in the UK- but in Norway they positively encourage entrepreneurship, it is integral to a lot of things they do in the prison. They encourage independence, skills that enable the prisoner to really fend for themselves in the real world. In the prison shop and in the kiosk selling to prisoners, prisoners do all the ordering and the stocktaking. In the arts and crafts room in Trondheim  (and I believe this is true in every prison) they have a screen printing machine – from August to August each year they encourage a group of prisoners to set up a company painting T-shirts. They have to register properly with the equivalent of companies house, make, market and sell their goods, book keep and submit accounts and at the end of the year dissolve the company formally. Its an ‘Entrepreneurship Module’ and they really learn how to do it on the outside – its real – the company was making T-shirts for an outside sports team, a real order. I would have thought that is quite interesting and satisfying – as an entrepreneur ex-prisoner myself I know how great it is running your own business.


This week in Norway saw the start on ‘Innovation Week’ – a two week intensive programme in the prisons were groups are invited to develop ideas for new products. They have specialist lecturers in and lead sessions and the brainstorm and invent something, they make a computer presentation (could include film) of their invention, prototype, what ever – and it goes into a competition within the prison and then nationally – the over all winner can get made. I like this idea a lot too – tapping into the creativity of the prisoners like the Design Against Crime I mentioned already at UAL . Detractors and cynics say that it could be seen as ‘using and exploiting’ the ideas of the prisoners – but these are the kind of ‘high school’ or ‘student’ opportunities that are run all the time in higher education that most people in prison have simply missed out on. Being part of a team, designing something, making a presentation, perhaps finding you have skill for some part of the process, all things you do not necessary know about unless you have tried.

I would really like to go into prisons and run an ‘Innovation Week’ where groups of prisoners and prison staff design their own prisons, come up with ideas – Im going to suggest it to the Ministry of Justice! (idea’s for Michael Gove #35672)

All these schemes and these practical uses of day-to-day technology are only really made possible in Norway because of the size of the prisons. It probably would not work in a prison that caters for the numbers in the UK. The thought of these ‘super prisons’ that have been mentioned is totally abhorrent – a ‘Super Prison’ would breed the ‘otherness’ that is so destructive and inhibits rehabilitation – I will strongly campaign for smaller prisons, around 500 people, in their own rooms, where meaningful work can take place.

I am still proud of my programme taking iPads into prisons – it seems that it is actually quite forward thinking, so I am still proud of that. In all honesty we are actually only  inside two prisons and negotiating with many more. An iPad is  a ‘secure’ piece of technology where no wifi enabled, no USB, and you can do so much, photos, manipulation, drawing, cartoons, films, sound recording, animation – all in a portable one stop device – the feeling of completing a little project, when you rarely finish anything is reading important. Take Sandy who completed this film last month in Peterborough, he said he had never attended or completed any courses in the prison before, now he is helping the new groups settle in, Ive literally been around the world and not seen anyone doing exactly what I am doing!


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