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From Wormwood Scrubs to Digital Prisons



Interview: Gary Monaghan, director of business change for HM Prison and Probation Service, talks about the effort to harness digital in improving safety, providing self-service and creating a better environment in prisons

If digital can provide better outcomes in public services, it should also be able to change the lives of prison inmates for the better.

Gary Monaghan has the sharp end experience to assess how the technology can deal with the pressing problems in prisons: he was governor of Wormwood Scrubs before moving into the role of director of business change for HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). He was already a believer in the cause of using digital to give prisoners more responsibility for core functions of their lives, and is now working on the gradual implementation of Digital Prisons.

His contribution to last week’s Smart Wales and Connected Cymru conference, staged by UKAuthority with Microsoft, threw the spotlight onto the concept and the early progress in applying it to individual institutions.

Speaking with UKAuthority he says that more basic problems have had to be overcome before the service can get on with the more ambitious changes.

“We’ve been sorting out the messy pile of architecture we inherited a couple of years ago,” he says.

“We’ve got a big transformation of our back office to enable this. Prisons were in a poor position and probation in a terrible position, so we’ve had to do a lot of remediation in terms of network capability and applications to get people up to a minimum standard.”

Biometrics and integration

But the concept is going into practice, using a system provided by Unilink that includes biometrics to Home Office standards and the ability to integrate with the internal back office and external systems.

“As our service was going through a challenging time in terms of operational stability it was imperative that Digital Prisons was really focused on safety in prisons,” Monaghan told the conference. “We did research and decided one of the things we could do was introduce prisoner self-service, researched the market and selected Unilink as the supplier.

“As part of the concept we decided we would trial it in a number of pilot sites and roll out prisoner self-service more widely if it was successful and we had the confidence of ministers.

“We also started to think about the wider architecture and connectivity. One of the things about the Digital Prisons concept is that effectively we don’t have networks prisoners can access, so we’re having to start at a base level.”

He cites the process of prisoners ordering their meals in advance as an example of what the self-service can provide. It has often been a flashpoint when some change their minds and effectively take meals meant for others, but recording the order on a digital system, rather than in a mound of paper that nobody can check, can make it easier to manage and diffuse any tensions.

They can also use it for actions such as ordering small items from prison shops and managing their own account information.

Controlling risks

Security is an important factor. Giving them access to a cloud system and external websites requires internet connectivity, but this has to be controlled to manage the risk around communicating with the outside world.

Monaghan says there is a cyber operations service that adds a layer of monitoring allowing relevant services to plug into the system and provide shortcuts to the relevant web pages, without allowing the users to stray into other areas.

“We’ve had white, green and blacklisting of pages, but that is time consuming,” he says. “This is a simpler version that does a lot of the work for you automatically.

“There is still a need for some testing because we haven’t yet plugged in any external services. We still have to get ministerial approval to go to services outside our community.”

The removal of application forms from many processes should also release prison officers from the time they spend in processing them and reduce the number of errors – another factor that can remove some of the flashpoints.

“We had to use the technology to remove this bureaucracy, pass the time back to prison officers to give them more control, and improve the relationships with prisoners,” he says. “Also, having people in custody for committing offences, we wanted to pass responsibility to them for their day to day life through the technology.”

Netbooks and networks

Implementing the concept has begun in a small way, with pilots at Wayland and Berwyn Prisons for prisoners to use netbooks. This comes with a programme to provide network connections throughout prisons, and an effort to ensure that inmates have the digital skills to use the system effectively.

“Most components are there but have to get ministers onboard to go to next level,” Monaghan says. “We don’t think it will fully mobilise until next year so we will keep on putting wires into walls.”

Other changes have been made or are under way. Back office systems have been moved to the cloud, and probation is in the process of moving to Office 365 with prisons due to follow. HMPPS is also looking at what it can do with data analytics using the Anvil risk intelligence and analysis system, looking at areas such as security and prisoner safety.

“There are also things we can do with the Unilink technology in automated decision making,” he says. “It’s been at a siloed level but it’s not integrated yet.”

There are also plans for an integrated scheduling tool to be shared with the Courts Service – for which there is still a lot of work to be done – and to integrate the biometrics of the Unilink system with those held by the police, although this will have to wait for the consolidation of police and immigration systems and provision of the APIs.

“We’re trying to get the building blocks in place and we have some work to be able to have a national biometric register. It’s about the partners getting themselves ready as well.”

Security measures are highly important, and the service is experimenting with technology to detect and block mobile phones in prisons, and looking at what it can do to combat the threat of drones being used to drop illegal packages.

“The future for that is probably a blend of technologies, some of it probably sophisticated video recognition software and some it sound based, or even radar based,” Monaghan says.

Coding workshop

Another initiative goes beyond equipping prisoners with basic digital skills and into the field of coding. HMPPS has begun to work with the social venture Code4000 in setting up a coding workshop in Humber Prison, which is working with the service’s digital studio that supports most of its applications.

Monaghan says it hopes that it future it will be able to use some of the code from the workshop within its systems.

But he also acknowledges that all of the plans are subject to resources being made available, and that HMPPS is struggling with the same financial pressures as other public services. It points towards incremental progress, getting the basics in place and winning the backing for individual plans.

“The fundamental architecture has to be in place to support that and then bit by bit we will reach out. We’re putting infrastructure in and can then move into the digital world,” he says.

“To me it’s a journey that will take some years because people have to build confidence and get the agreements for it to happen.”

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