Since the early 1980s there have been rapid and profound technological changes in society. Digital technology has become an integral part of our lives. We use swipe-card technology and mobile phones to pay for items and services. We conduct social and economic transactions via email, web-based, or social media platforms. And we continue to adapt our homes, workplaces, and learning environments as technology advances.
Most people in custody are already socially and economically disadvantaged. Often they have lower socioeconomic status, poor health, high unemployment and low levels of education (Murphy, 2012). As society moves towards digitised learning and working environments, the digital, social, and communication divide between people in custody and the outside world increases. This results in further exclusion of those who are already socially excluded.
In recent years, the Department of Justice (formerly the Department of Corrective Services) has embraced technologies such as electronic monitoring of offenders, surveillance and scanning equipment, and computerised case management and reporting. Using such technologies can improve efficiency and service outcomes. However, people in custody have gained little from advances in digital technology, resulting in digital inequalities and a widening digital divide.
Access to digital technology for people in custody in Western Australia is poor
Compared with other Australian jurisdictions Western Australia has poor access to computers and in-cell devices. On average there is only one computer accessible for every 15 people held in custody. In addition, there is considerable variation between facilities based on how each chooses to prioritise access. This fails to account for the needs of the prison population.
The Department has not taken a coordinated or strategic approach to assessing the level of need and requirements for computer access for people in custody.
Adult education is driving digital technology access but is not extending into youth education
Almost all the computers available to people in custody are for education purposes. Most adult prisons provide some degree of access to computers, e-readers, and interactive whiteboards for education purposes.
The Department’s Education and Vocational Training Unit (EVTU) provides guidance and governance for the use of digital technology to enhance learning in adult prisons. A dedicated staff member maintains and upgrades equipment and provides technical support when needed. However, young people in Banksia Hill do not benefit from the coordination provided through EVTU.
Legal services are restricted due to poor digital technology access
People in custody can only access electronic legal information and prepare for their court appearances using computers in libraries or common areas, or a very limited number of in-cell laptops. Policy stipulates that at least one computer is to be made available for this purpose in each prison library. But there is no guidance on how many computers should be available based on the prison population.
There is no centralised person or role who is responsible for maintaining, upgrading, or supporting these computers. This results in considerable variance between facilities.
Legal practitioners reported difficulties in showing electronic evidence to clients in custody. They said clients often do not see electronic material until they reach court. This can reduce the options for early pleas and extend time in custody.
The Department is missing opportunities to use digital technology to increase social contact and improve the digital literacy of people in custody
The Department uses video links for court appearances, bringing significant financial savings in court custody and transport costs. But it makes little use of video communication technology to facilitate social contact with people outside custody or in other facilities.
Privately-run facilities use self-service kiosks to allow people in custody to manage appointments, accounts, and order canteen items. This reduces the administrative burden on custodial officers, improves the digital literacy of people in custody, and promotes personal responsibility. These systems have been a success but have not yet been introduced in the state’s public facilities.