A duty of care

Gordon Harrison examines how technology could help prisons fulfil their wider community responsibilities.

Aug 8, 2013
By Gordon Harrison

All prisons across the world share a similar function, as places where individuals are physically confined and have their movements and freedoms restricted.

Typically, they also have similar issues to address: from dealing with outbreaks of communal violence to tackling bullying and from prisoners smuggling drugs and mobile phones to confronting issues of corruption and manipulation.

Prisons also share another distinguishing feature. They either are, or should be, an integral part of their community. While many people think of prisons as a self-contained world apart from the rest of society, this is an inaccurate view. Most staff and suppliers come from the local area. And when they are released, prisoners emerge directly into it. As a result, prisons hold a duty of care to their staff and the wider community in which they operate.

A critical element of this duty is managing prisoners effectively. Collecting and processing information and developing it into meaningful intelligence is key here. This is more than just an administrative requirement involving tracking personal details and changes to their address and prison status, important though that is. Intelligence collection and management plays a vital role in protecting communities, both inside and outside prison.

Making the right information available at the right time

Using systems to gain rapid access to information about each prisoner is critical to this process. In the event that a prisoner takes his cellmate hostage and starts making ransom demands, being able to rapidly access intelligence about the prisoner and their cellmate will be key in helping the hostage negotiators bring the drama to an end. Critically, too, it will help to avoid the hostage being injured, as well as protecting the broader prison community.

This kind of approach can also help protect the wider community outside the prison gates. Take the scenario where a prisoner suffers an apparent medical emergency. The prison authorities will quickly need to take a view on whether the injury or illness is genuine. In this situation, having access to high-quality intelligence about the prisoner could be key to the completion of an informed risk assessment, putting in place a police shadow, or deciding how many staff should escort the prisoner to hospital.

Being able to do this quickly is also essential. The prisoner could be genuinely ill and, if their condition deteriorates because of a delay, their health could be threatened. The key is finding a balance between upholding a duty of care for prisoners and protecting the public.

Keeping quality high

Making sure that the quality and integrity of the information collected is maintained at all times is another key driver for prison management systems. This in turn helps safeguard the wider community by streamlining links with external agencies.

Systems should be able to protect the source of any information collected but also grade it in terms of reliability. This helps prison management gain credibility with partner agencies, such as the police and social services, build trust and encourage an inward and outward flow of information between prisons and third-party agencies on ‘a need to know’ basis.

Developing this kind of relationship also helps prison management become more proactive in passing relevant information onto police or social services. Much of this intelligence is likely to be positive – capturing and propagating details of successfully completed rehabilitation programmes, for example.

Part of the duty of care, though, is to use systems to pinpoint issues with prisoners that might otherwise remain hidden. If a prisoner is awaiting a parole decision, technology can be used to pinpoint where that prisoner has committed misdemeanors by, for example, getting other inmates to commit offences for them in prison. This information can then be made available to the board, assisting them in their deliberations.

Part of the wider community

The current emphasis within p

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